More or less?

It’s the time of year when I’m putting together my notes for the coming semester’s teaching.  As part of that, I’m making all my powerpoint presentations too, so that they can be posted on our virtual learning environment.  This is in line with my thinking that students should know what’s coming in advance, so they don’t spend their time trying to divine my purpose as they sit in the class itself. However, in this post, I’d like to focus more on the content of the presentations rather than their availability.

Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought that i have encountered over the years.  The first (which is almost completely vanished now) is that powerpoint is the work of the devil and should be fought as such: ‘I was taught using only a blackboard and velum scrolls’ [I characterise slightly here].  The second, and most common, is that powerpoint presentations are useful and should contain all of the key points of the class.  Thirdly, my view and less common, is that presentations are useful, but should only provide a bare framework.

Such distinctions might seem trivial, but powerpoint does still hold the dubious honour of being the only subject about which I have seen an academic colleague (not of this institution, I hasten to add) have a shouting fit – too many words on a slide being the crime in question on this case.  So clearly, it’s something that moves people.

For those that have seen my presentations, they are sparse: much more than a handful of words on a handful of slides for a lecture and I get concerned that I’m tying myself down too rigidly.  But the main concern is that being too prescriptive in my presentation also makes students too prescriptive in their thinking: I want to open up their minds to the possibilities of a subject, not close it down to a ‘right way’ of looking at it.  Thus, since my lectures are often trying to be opening gambits in a subject, it is more useful to give bare dimensions and elements for students to play with, rather than a constrained list.  Moreover, since I’m writing the presentations now, I want to leave myself the flexibility to address additional points that come up through the weeks that are not apparent now, so letting me reflect the students’ learning process.

In brief, I am very comfortable with my approach and I can defend it.  By the same token, colleagues are comfortable defending their more comprehensive approach, as a means of ensuring students have a substantial repository of knowledge.  In my role as School Director of Learning & Teaching, my main concern is that an approach works for the people involved (both faculty and students): in the immortal words of the theme from ‘Diff’rent Strokes’:

The world don’t move
to the beat of just one drum.
What might be right for you
may not be right for some.

2 Replies to “More or less?”

    1. Unfortunately, I think that’s a big part of it: the attractions distract from the downsides. As a further example, I’m trying out Prezi, which looks absolutely amazing, but which (in the words of a colleague) certainly distracts from any content – you’re too busy wondering how it got done to think about what it’s for. Hence my less-is-more strategy: no colours, no movement, just plain black text on white backgrounds, all so unimpressive that you have no choice but to glance through the words as you listen to me build around them.

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