Defending Powerpoint: The Instructor, Not the Tool, Makes the Lesson

The Guardian’s Andrew Smith recently published a piece in their Technology Blog lamenting the overuse of PowerPoint (PPT) -based lectures in the college classroom, citing as faults both the boredom it causes as well as the critical thinking it supposedly inhibits. I agree that PPT can lead to lectures with such attributes, but as with so many teaching methods, the tool itself should not be blamed for the faults of a lesson.

Powerpoint: the death of critical thinking?

To be as anecdotal as the author, I too have heard terrible, boring lectures grounded in pretty fonts, three or four bullet points, and droning voices that belong in a sleep-aid app. But I’ve also attended PPT lectures that were brilliant and thought provoking, and been put to sleep by a fair share of lectures with no visual aids.

A good lecture has more to do with the skill of the presenter than the tool itself. A dynamic presenter can create an interesting, informative, and provoking lecture using PPT, Prezi, or any other form of presentation software, while the same tool in the hands of a less skilled teacher can of course lead to confusion, boredom, and passivity. The chalk/white board (itself a piece of technology) can be just as misused–Many instructors have limited abilities at what I’ve always called ‘boardcraft’, the art of using the board effectively to clearly communicate with students. A set of prepared notes using the board or no technology at all, can lead to an amazing, provocative lecture–or not. It is the skill and training of the instructor, and how they use their instructional tools, rather than the tools themselves that lead to desirable results in a classroom setting. For example, the ALPS team strongly supports simulations and games as methods of teaching students. The most important part of using a game for learning, though, is the debriefing process that occurs after the activity has ended, which requires the instructor to be able to pull the experiences of the students from them and help them think through how the content lessons are exemplified or challenged by the gameplay.

The teaching tool does not determine the interest level or critical nature of the lesson.

This can be done with prepared PPT slides with provocative questions, or the whiteboard, or online discussion boards, or via old school classroom discussion. The tool is far less important than the instructor’s ability to tie personal experience in the game to the overall lesson.

Another assertion in the article that I find troubling is the implied trade off between using PPT and the board. Yes, PPT is linear in its approach. But there is nothing stopping an instructor from going off-script to follow up on a point made by a student. Depending on the technology set up in your classroom, it can be pretty easy to switch between the two. One of the classrooms I teach in has the projector on a separate wall from the board, so I often use both. In another, the projector blocks the board–but it is the work of a moment to ‘Pic-Mute’ the projector and pull the screen up so I can use the board.

There are other methods of ensuring that PPT does not make your lessons boring and uncritical. Consider avoiding bullet points entirely and instead using images, clips, and questions as the touch points for your lesson, allowing the content for that slide to be more dynamically presented and discussed. Alternatively, you can always include slides at the end that are not necessarily part of the main lesson, but which you can jump to very easily if in the course of the lecture, a relevant point comes up. For example, I will frequently drop polling data in the end of my slides on related topics that students sometimes bring up (say, opinions on various social issues for a lecture on Civil Liberties). This gives me options–I can jump to those slides if they come up, but I’m not required to do so if they do not. Jumping in and out of PPT itself is also very easy, and I will do it readily if I suddenly recall a news clip, video, or primary source that I did not include in the main lecture. No one has to be tied to the pre-prepared slides unless they let themselves be constrained by it.

Clearly, I am a fan of PPT, but like any tool, it has its limitations in the classroom. My philosophy is that we have a toolbox full of methods, of which PPT is one, and we should use the tool that helps us craft the best lesson for a given piece of content. It is our job as instructors to create lessons that are not boring and which provoke critical thinking; the blame for a class that fails to meet that mark falls squarely on us, not on PowerPoint.

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