Gizmos in the classroom

I wanted to kiss Dean Jose Bowen (of the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU) when he warned his professors against the evil of PowerPoint (from A&LD). When he arrived at SMU, “classrooms had two computers (a Mac and a PC), a DVD player, a VCR, and a tape deck, along with ‘one of those complicated control panels where you need a Ph.D. to figure it out.'” He does have a PhD, but he had the gear ripped out anyway and not replaced. My champion!

Why did he do this? It saved money (no need for support staff nor for replacement gear), but it also let Bowen dramatically put forth his motto: profs should “teach naked.” The writer of the piece is careful to tell us that Bowen has a goatee and that he plays jazz, man. So we know he’s cool and, ipso facto, so is the phrase “teach naked,” which we infer means “teach without gizmos.”

I have often decried PowerPoint as the work of the devil. (If it had been available, the Beatles would have displayed their lyrics with it.) Nothing–I mean it: nothing—encourages laziness in a teacher more than PowerPoint. They figure the stilted language that comprise their “bullets” will save them time preparing for class. They’re right. It also saves the students’ time. Instead of having to use the classroom to think about what their profs are saying, they can concentrate on thumbing more text messages (curiously, written with the same choppy sentences). The article on Bowen quotes a peer-reviewed study (so you know it can’t be wrong) in the “British Educational Research Journal [which] found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.” Only 59%? Probably, the other 41% were dozing, mesmerized into a stupor by the soft yellow letters on a blue background of the researcher’s presentation.

But just as I was ready to swear allegiance to Bowen, I find he has gone too far. Sure, he dumped the classroom computers, but then he bought each professor a laptop (so much for the savings). And why? So that they could create podcasts and PowerPoint presentations with it, that’s why. In his zeal, he also removed the musty and frumpy “old desks and replaced them with tables and chairs” so that students could be arranged kumbaya style for healthy “group discussions.”

Now, I often use the device of student participation. I make each student (or as many as I can) go to the board and puzzle out problems with the help of the other students. This works particularly well for homework in the first few sessions of a new class: it shows students that the struggles they face are common. It’s good for morale. But it’s not terribly effective when the class breaks 15 or so: it’s just too many people, and you end up hearing from the same few unless you are assiduous about calling on everybody.

This kind of participation isn’t quite what Bowen has in mind. He wants the “information delivery” (yes, really) “to be recorded and delivered to students as podcasts or online videos before class sessions.” Profs are to make their own podcasts with their new laptops. Then, after a foreshortened lecture, the prof can introduce “issues of debate within the discipline and get the students to weigh in based on the knowledge they have from those lecture podcasts.”

Dude, like, we’re all working together and thinking and stuff.

Students, reticent at first (probably some resented missing their nap times), eventually liked the idea of sitting and chatting. However, the most telling quote:

If you say to a student, We have this problem in Mayan archaeology: We don’t know if the answer is A or B. We used to all think it was A, now we think it’s B. If the lecture is ‘Here’s the answer, it’s B,’ that’s not very interesting. But if the student believes they can contribute, they’re a whole lot more motivated to enter the discourse, and to enter the discipline.

Note: “if the student believes he can contribute.” I take this in the sense “if he believes he can contribute, which of course he cannot, because he does not know the answer is B.” It’s one thing to work out a math problem but quite another to guess a historical fact or to intuit a new theory.

A podcast isn’t going to cut it. There is no way it can replace a book. It is an empirical fact that there is more information to be had in one hour of reading that in one hour of listening (or worse, watching). Freeing students from reading also frees them from having to think too much. What we really have here is Bowen’s solution to the necessary dumbing down of college caused by increasing enrollment.

Update: 23 July Emily Smith at the WSJ has an article that hints that the Great Books are coming back. I truly hope so. “[R]ecently a small but vibrant group of important professors have been working to restore the great books’ prominence in a liberal arts education…The academic radicalism of recent decades is receding, and students are ready to be serious again.”


  1. Dr. Briggs,

    As I watch today’s students, like my son, receive PowerPoint presentation instruction from their teachers and then do PowerPoint presentations for their homework assignments I realize that they never need to actually engage in any critical or original thinking whatsoever. For their homework they just rearrange information from the book or the web into sentence fragments in PowerPoint, add a bunch of nonsense bling (color, fading, page flipping animations, dancing monkeys, and the like), and the teachers swoon over them, completely oblivious to the fact that no learning has occurred or is likely to occur in their classrooms.

    I always think of this when the discussion turns to the evils of PowerPoint:

    The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation

    And, lets not leave out the thoughts of the outspoken Edward Tufte:

    “PowerPoint Is Evil

    Power Corrupts.
    PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely.”

    By Edward Tufte

  2. Based on sample size n=1 (me), 100% of students in an old survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring even though Power Point hadn’t been invented yet.

    The problem is with the operator, not the tool.

  3. Philosophically I tend to agree with Speed, but then I’ve used PowerPoint in a government and church environment for years and have to agree with Matt and BF that most of what I’ve seen in government has been boring, boring, snoozeville………..and sometimes in church, too. Loved the Gettysburg Address example, BF. Good catch!

    The nice Dean probably more closely mirrors a moderne tendency to eliminate that nasty word “effort” from things taught. After all, in this age of FDR’s second Bill of Rights don’t we all have the right to be successful without putting in sweat and effort? Hasn’t some court somewhere ruled on this? If they haven’t, they soon will. I know every junior college – excuse me, community college in the land has stricken “effort” from their catalogs. So why not consider that most universities have done the same. Just because silly old Matt didn’t receive the memo doesn’t mean SMU’s Dean Bowen can’t be so avant garde as to require podcasts. Be thankful he didn’t order his department’s courses be Twittered.

  4. Slow down there, Speed. What’s more likely is that, before PP half the lectures were boring; after PP, most are.

    A tweet from 49erDweet?

  5. My experiences with PowerPoint in the classroom have been very positive. Of course, most of those experiences have come in computer graphics classes, where the technology is necessary. No one could teach 3D NURBS without the assistance of a lot of pre-made visuals and links to actual computer programs. Can you imagine trying to draw something like that by hand on a blackboard?

    So don’t knock PP just because some people misuse. That’s like knocking singing just because you don’t like the Beatles’ songs.

  6. Boring teachers are generally boring because they are poor speakers. They will approach PowerPoint as a tool to add a graphical element to their lecture because it aids in getting the information out (which they struggle with). They will continue to be poor speakers.

    “59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring”

    I’d put money on the theory that this line could have come from a survey every year since the beginning of formal schooling. Students’ perception that teachers are Ben Stein boring predates Powerpoint.

    “What’s more likely is that, before PP half the lectures were boring; after PP, most are.”

    59% of students saying half of their classes are boring does not back up this assertion.

  7. You’re right about the occasional, rare course, Kevin. But sociology? philosophy? history? math? etc., etc.? For the most part, more harm than good.

    Many profs (and lecturers elsewhere) provide their “slides” for perusal afterwards, as class material. PP is in no way a substitute for reading a book.

    And in you case, a podcast would be harder to follow than projected examples.

    John — 59% is “most” for most of us.

  8. Since I wrote the last post, I’ve been going over the courses I’ve taken in the past, trying to remember what techniques various professors used. For my math courses, without exception every single prof used the blackboard. At my university at least, that department has resisted the lure of PP. I also remembered a first year computer architecture course where the prof used PP slides, and that course was as bad as anything you describe. Especially since he never updated any of the slides, ever. I’m sure ten years from now he’ll still be using the slide that says “Some processors have speeds of over 200MHz”. The course was so bad, in fact, that I dropped it halfway through and took it with a different professor the next year. So I concede the point.

  9. What the hay – I’ll defend PP for math. I find it helps to break down complex equations for students if I have the ability to highlight (using a different color, whatever) different bits of the equation as I’m talking about them. And it goes without saying, of course, that plots often help illustrate what a function is doing. So PP can be quite a useful tool for math lectures, in fact.

    Of course, getting this right means that an instructor has to plan out his lecture in advance – think about what he’s going to say, and in what order, before he says it. There are some lecturers who do better off the cuff, but I think most lectures are better when carefully prepared ahead of time. (Where “carefully prepared” means putting oneself in the students’ shoes and trying to anticipate their points of difficulty and likely questions.) You can see where I’m going with this. A lot of hostility to PP comes from laziness on the part of instructors who are unwilling to plan their lectures and resent the existence of a tool that makes it clear just how much and how well they’ve planned.

  10. Powerpoint seems to me to be a more reliable way to show movies than the old film projectors or the VCR. Similarly, the Overhead Projector was more reliable than the slide projector or, in my experience, Powerpoint. I like reliability in a gizmo. But then, I preferred the blackboard to the whiteboard. Awfully reliable, chalk, and no-one seemed to steal it.

  11. All,

    Anybody yet willing to stick up for regular podcasts; probably, while not officially but certainly effectively, in place of reading books?

  12. I don’t think you can beat a book. If the professor is boring, his podcast is probably boring. With the book you can skip his class and teach yourself.

  13. All for the podcast. The podcast / video lecture would never replace the book. It would suplement the book.

    It makes me think of the movie “Real Genius.” Beginning of the term, the lecture hall is full. A few weeks later, half the students are gone, and have left tape recorders on their desks. A couple of scenes after that, one student attends the lecture, and the professor has has been replaced by an archaic reel to reel player.

    Use the time between teacher and students for discussion and dialoge.

  14. My experience has been that too many of my faculty colleagues don’t want to do the prep work for a course, so they use the powerpoint slides supplied by the publisher of the text they are using, and they adapt their teaching style to the style of the powerpoints.

    We tend to forget that powerpoint is simply a tool, like a hammer or a screw driver. In the hands of the right person, wonderful things can happen, but misused, they can be deadly.

    Too many of the people I work with are in love with the technology itself (podcasts, blogs, etc etc) but forget that most of the students we see in our institution cannot learn that way. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was true in other institutions as well.

  15. I find PowerPoint very bad for math. It’s hard to display more than one or two equations at a time, so the presentation doesn’t flow well. It’s hard to refer back, for example.

    I once taught math with a large blackboard having two more blackboards behind it. You’d fill one board, then slide it up to reveal the next. Eventually, you would have three filled boards all visible. That was great!

    I had a math class where the prof used a transparency roll on an overhead projector. Remember those? He’d turn the little crank to reveal more. That seemed to work pretty well. Better than PowerPoint.

    Anyone remember those old projectors in which you could put a book and have the page projected on a wall? How did they work? No camera, just a light bulb.

  16. I’ve been teaching at university (in Australia) for 20 years. It’s not the tools; it’s how you use them.

    Having said that…standard Powerpoint presentations are often not particularly good. I often create graphics/text in something else and just use Powerpoint as a projector.

    In fact, now you can run PDF slideshows instead and avoid Powerpoint altogether.

  17. Imparting knowledge is a tricky thing. It requires the willing engagement of two minds, the teacher’s and the student’s. If either party is distracted or unwilling, the transfer is blocked.

    Slide shows put me to sleep, even if I am interested in the subject and trying to understand. Bright flashing lights are hypnotic and drowse inducing. I’d rather read the book.

    Participation is the key. I’m no expert on this, but it takes two to tango. If your dance partner is asleep…

  18. The rule I use for slide decks is pretty simple, if the time or effort required to display the informtion on a board (white or black) is prohibative, use a deck (PP). But never use it unless you have to.

  19. Briggs seriously,
    59% of students saying half or more of thier lectures are boring is not even remotely the same thing as saying most lectures are boring.

  20. I give many presentations at work and try hard to avoid the PowerPoint bulleted presentation format. I agree with Keith McGuinness that PP can be used for the showing of visual aids to enhance your presentation, but should not become the presentation itself. I also find that most presentation rooms are ill suited to engagement with the audience when using PowerPoint, as you must turn out the lights to view the projection screen thus losing your connection with the audience. I would suggest making arrangements to have just the lights over the projection screen turned off (or removed if they cannot be turned off independently) and leaving on the rest of the lights.

    Some views from others I found interesting and fitting for this discussion:

    “Perils of Powerpoint” article, by Thomas R. McDaniel, Converse College, and Kathryn N. McDaniel, Marietta College

    Regarding PowerPoint use for preaching (good preachers are not at all unlike good teachers):

    Another comment:

    “AvoidingPowerPoint Perils”, by Michael Fraidenburg:

  21. Bruce, All (but not you, John, because you’re being purposely churlish),

    My PP story. I went to — I believe it was — a medical conference where I was scheduled to talk; skill of mammograms of something; no math required, anyway. The session organizer came to me.

    “Dr Briggs. Nice to meet you. We need to load everybody’s slides on the computer before the talks begin.”

    “I don’t have any.”

    “You didn’t use PowerPoint?”

    “No, I didn’t. But I don’t have any slides.”

    She checked her watch. “That’s OK. We have time. I’ll have one of the residents convert your talk to PowerPoint.”

    “No, you don’t understand. I don’t have any slides. Not just no PowerPoint.”

    This had stumped her. I saw the words “No Power…” forming on her lips, but it never made it out. “Then you’re not going to do your talk?”

    “Certainly, I’m going to talk. Are slides required?”

    “Hold on a minute. I’m going to talk to Dr Jones.” It wasn’t “Jones”, but I can’t recall the name. She came back in about seven minutes, with a fixed smile. “We’ve figured it out. I have Dr Smith here,” indicating some pale resident, “and he can type in your notes in a hurry. It doesn’t have to match your talk exactly. But that way the slides will be in the system with the rest of the talks.” That smile became pride.

    “Uh, well. I don’t have any notes.”

    The old look of consternation returned. “But how will you give your talk?”

    I recall resisting the urge to say, “I’ll just open my mouth and vibrate my uvula melodically.” I had thought it would have been a funny line, her being a doc and so being familiar with anatomy. Instead, I just said, “I memorized it.” I hadn’t actually even done that, per se—memorized it, I mean. I knew what I wanted to get across, and I figured I’d adjust it depending on how many of my jokes fell flat. Since our session was going to start, my guide had to relent. There was no time for me to dictate.

    The talk went well, as I remember. I walked back from the dais and passed my guide and she gave me a look like she was examining Abby Normal’s brain under glass.

  22. (If it had been available, the Beatles would have displayed their lyrics with it.)

    How about a moratorium on Beatles bashing, it’s getting boring.

  23. Briggs, you need one slide with your name on it. Otherwise the organizers don’t know that you actually presented.

  24. I had a meeting with a bank, where the senior economist used powerpoint in a way I hadn’t seen before. Generally, the fewer the slides the better the presentation. This was just the opposite. He had a chartbook with over 100 pages.

    The slides did not direct the discussion. Rather, if the discussion came to a subject for which he had a slide, he could pull it up. It amazed that he knew his book so well that he could flip from slide 37 to slide 83, without breaking from the dialogue.

  25. Dr. Briggs,

    There may also be an even darker side to PowerPoint presentations, at least when used with the bullet hierarchy often used by presenters. That side is the one where important and critical information is obscured or lost due to the organization of the information within the hierarchy. The most well known and distressing instance of this possibility is explained on page 191 in chapter 7 of the CAIB (Columbia Accident Investigation Board) report.

    This possibility, as far as I am aware, was first introduced by Edward Tufte who expanded his thoughts regarding the Columbia accident in his booklet “The Cognitive Style of Power Point” beginning on page 7.

    For those interested in how improper graphical representations of visual and statistical evidence may lead to disastrous decision making, Edward Tufte’s review of the visual presentation materials used by managers to OK the launch of space shuttle Challenger in 1986 is worth a read. He has published this review in his book “Visual Explanations” and has reprinted it in the booklet “Visual and Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Making Decisions”.

    I know that some will argue that it isn’t the fault of PowerPoint, but of the presenters, and I would agree. However, I believe it worthwhile to become aware of PowerPoint’s missuses and pitfalls in order to become better presenters. And, if you are an engineer or someone who must present information that decisions regarding life safety will be based on, these two essays by Tufte are must reading in my humble opinion.

  26. I concur with Keith M and Speed’s point that it’s how a teacher utilizes the technology as a tool (not the core) to facilitate student learning. My experience (though it doesn’t impart authority on my words here) tells me that Mike D. is probably correct. Whether a class is boring largely has to do with student attitudes toward the subject and the professor’s teaching style and personality.

    Of course, regardless of what Gizmos I use, my students are never bored. ^_^

    Check out this funny clip — PowerPoint Comedy.

  27. 451 and 452 were among the toughest classes I have ever taken.

    I remember thumbing through Snedecor the day I bought the book, wondering what it meant.

    My teacher, a wonderful teacher, gave examples and counter-examples of Snedecor, with problem sets that allowed you to test different ways of achieving similiar results. He was a master, and we were his apprentices.

    It became apparent that 90 percent of the class failed to fully comprehend the material being presented. For those of us in the 10 percent which hadn’t failed, our prof was a wonderful, gifted teacher. For the 90 percenters, it was all the professor’s fault.

    I suppose our teacher could have used different colours of chalk. Think how much more exciting his lectures could have been!

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