Monday, February 18, 2008

Julie makes some good points in comments on PowerPoint...

my Pal Julie writes...

Ah, my good friend, I'm about to disagree with you:

You're right, of course, that PPt is a tool, but like all tools, it's not "just a tool." Tools are *created* out of a particular set of values AND assumptions about the use for said tools.

I've been convinced (thru personal experience as well as the analysis by researchers/scholars in the field of technical communication) that PPt is a tool with limited usefulness - and perhaps a cost greater than its beneficial uses - because of the following reasons (just for starters):

1) the hierarchical structure of slide creation forces all slide content into a hierarchy when content may not be hierarchically related
2) the hierarchy forces viewers/auditors to understand the content in a way that may not coincide with their preferred way of understanding (you know, all the "learning styles" and "multiple intelligences" stuff that Howard Gardner has described)

First of all -- it is quite possible to use tools in ways divorced from the assumptions under which they were created. Human kind has been doing that for years, if PowerPoint is a tool, then I'm not sure why it is any different.

In terms of your hierarchy point -- Although in teaching philosophy, PowerPoint is useful in representing an argument -- I do agree that there are many settings in which PowerPoint isn't a useful tool. In fact, I decided not to use a PowerPoint presentation I'd prepared for my most recent conference paper. I decided that my audience would connect better with me than with the slides and that what I had to say didn't need the structure of the slides. I was confident that my audience could follow a 20 minute talk... so I didn't use it.

A professional conference is VERY different than the classroom settings in which I find myself teaching. When I need to present complex ideas and arguments in large classes of community college students, (Ethics is 50 students, don't forget...) I don't have many of the tools available to those whose classes are much smaller. I can't reasonably have a large number of writing assignments, objective quizzes are terrible ways to assess learning philosophy and having a conversation/discussion in class that lets me assess understanding on an individual level is impossible. Add to the mix the problem of accurately assessing reading comprehension and the fact that even students who are actually at college-level have problems with Kant, so even if they've tried to do the readings (which isn't necessarily the case) they may not have understood it..

So, when faced with a large class that isn't necessarily understanding the material, in order to facilitate classroom discussion, my current method for writing PowerPoint slides is to begin with some think/pair/share discussion questions linking their intuitions to the material. I then present the main ideas or questions that will lead the discussion to the main ideas of the work -- and I end with a blank slide for objections...

Additionally, I do use the black/white board to further illustrate points etc -- but, having the outline on PowerPoint also assures me that I haven't left out a point in one class that I cover in another.

In terms of your learning-styles point -- I think that a good PowerPoint can actually facilitate more learning styles than a more free-flowing class discussion... why? Well, visual learners respond to the words on the screen -- and the images if appropriate or available. Discussion-based learners benefit from the resulting class discussions and from the think/pair/share exercises. Those of us (this is me all the way) that learns best within a linear progression of ideas (sometimes called 'logical' learners) can put the information into the bigger context of the slide presentation. Finally, since I make the PowerPoints available to my classes in advance, those who learn by writing can use the printed PowerPoint slides to structure their notes.

So, again -- why isn't it the case that poor PowerPoint presentations are the result of mis-use of PowerPoint and not a problem inherent in the tool itself?


Dan said...

Whenever someone rants about PowerPoint not being an effective teaching tool, you are the example I cite that it can work just fine.

I think the reason that so many people use PowerPoint with disastrous results is related to the old adage "when your only tool is hammer, everything becomes a nail." In other words, I think too many people plan their lectures in PowerPoint, versus figuring out how to attack the topic first, and then making some slides that add explanatory power.

Most courses have a similar structure: a reading for each class period, and then the class is a lecture on the topic of the reading. In classes where the material is relatively easy, or where my ego tells me I'm smarter than the professor, I rarely both go to class and do the reading, because intuitive logic suggests that it's just duplicated effort. But the best professors I've had make it worthwhile to do both by approaching the day's topic in a totally different way in their lectures than the textbook did. For example, a certain odd (but excellent) history professor at BNCC insisted (and I think he was right) that history is primarily a story and not a social science. The textbook would give the normal critical analysis of an incident or time period, but he would lecture almost as if he were telling the story, letting the concepts unfold instead of writing them on the board.

This sort of dual-pronged assault on a course topic almost never happens with PowerPoint. I think most professors essentially copy their notes from reading the textbook into PowerPoint slides, and then more or less read the slides. This sort of lecture doesn't seem any different than just reading the textbook out loud.

But I have had two teachers use it extremely effectively. You're the first one, for many of the reasons cited above. The second was a Physics professor I had in a 400 seat lecture hall. The slides did not look anything like his lecture notes, but would instead contain diagrams, equations, and example problems that he could point at without having to try to draw on a whiteboard, which all 300 students probably couldn't see clearly anyway.

In any case, I think there's a litmus test to decide whether or not a PowerPoint should be used for a given talk. If it would be totally possible to give the talk without PowerPoint, but the added media would be a nice touch, then it's fine. But if the PowerPoint is to be the basis for your talk, then it's probably a problem. i.e., For us debaters, PowerPoint shouldn't be your flow.

Anastasia said...

I use ppt primarily for images although I have used it to project short snippets of text I want discussed. I'm sure there is some nifty application people who are even more image driven use. actually, I know of one but I don't use it because, well, it's not a very intuitive interface. ppt is tremendously easy to use and a well-established and supported software application. so it works me when I'm teaching with images, which I always am.

it's funny, too, because I can't remember the last time I worried that students would be paying more attention to the slide than to me/the discussion. I've never felt like the two were in competition. and I do plan my lectures around my images. I just don't spend a lot of time worrying about the order in which information is presented. I have a plan, sure. But if someone asks a good question or makes a comment that pertains to another image, I'm going to skip ahead to it and circle back to what I wanted to talk about. In that sense, ppt doesn't run my life. or...I guess what I mean is I'm not beholden to the slides I've created. They are there for me to use as I see fit.

most of the time, I get to my slides in order but not always. I'm cool with that.

Anastasia said...

that should say it works *for* me when I'm teaching with images. not it works me. that sounds. strange.

Christopias Spritopher said...

Powerpoint, just like an other tool in the classroom can be over used - thats the beginning and end of the problem. It's not a panacea, it's just a tool.

I can't imagine rooms of people not hanging off your every word

julie said...

Thanks for highlighting my comment! Who would'a thought . . . :-)

The other comments here sort of miss the point I was trying to make: of course these tools can be used well or used poorly. The examples here, and PhiloFact's use/decisions, are sensible, appropriate, commendable, stupendous.

I mean, who *doesn't* have problems with Kant, really -- use PPt to teach him, use interpretive dance, use anything!

All I was trying to say is that critics of the critiques of PPt often misconstrue the PPt critiques' arguments: PPt critiques , the scholarly ones I'm talking about not the personal rants, try to call our attention to the limited range of thought processes / cognitive structures / learning patterns that are revealed in (constitutive of) the linear structure of the software.

This limited range forces and then reinforces (they'd say "privileges") a certain kind or way of knowing, of cognition. Users of PPt don't always seem to realize that limitation and so the use of PPt becomes inappropriate.

The commenters here (and PhiloFact) actually agree with UD's blog entry title, "PPt as Soporific," which points out that it's the way PPt is used that folks "hate." But plenty of other folks have pointed out that PPt's structure *forces* the inattentive user toward this bad use.

Am I making sense? I'm just trying to analyze the design of PPt and what that design reflects / implies / reinforces / constructs. PPt's ubiquity adds another problematic layer, but I'll save that for some other comment. ;-)