I have been using all of UD‘s posts on PowerPoint as an inspiration for my musings on this subject. Not this time.
This article is by historian Michael Flamm in this month’s AHA Perspectives, and his position is pro-PowerPoint, anti-PowerPoint abuse. Here’s the thesis:
What too many critics of PowerPoint too often fail to bear in mind is that it is simply a tool—nothing more and nothing less. Used well, the program can help motivate students, improve their retention, and organize their notes. Used poorly, it can distract or confuse them. But in the end, PowerPoint remains only a tool—and a good carpenter should never blame his or her tools.
It’s actually hard to argue with that, but I’m going to try nonetheless. I do this not because I disagree with the overall sentiment of that statement, but in this case I do believe that the tool does deserve some blame.
Clifford Nass has an office overlooking the Oval lawn at Stanford, a university where the use of PowerPoint is so widespread that to refrain from using it is sometimes seen as a mark of seniority and privilege, like egg on one’s tie. Nass once worked for Intel, and then got a Ph.D. in sociology, and now he writes about and lectures on the ways people think about computers. But, before embarking on any of that, Professor Nass was a professional magician—Cliff Conjure—so he has some confidence in his abilities as a public performer.
According to Nass, who now gives PowerPoint lectures because his students asked him to, PowerPoint “lifts the floor” of public speaking: a lecture is less likely to be poor if the speaker is using the program. “What PowerPoint does is very efficiently deliver content,” Nass told me. “What students gain is a lot more information—not just facts but rules, ways of thinking, examples.”
At the same time, PowerPoint “lowers the ceiling,” Nass says. “What you miss is the process. The classes I remember most, the professors I remember most, were the ones where you could watch how they thought. You don’t remember what they said, the details. It was ‘What an elegant way to wrap around a problem!’ PowerPoint takes that away. PowerPoint gives you the outcome, but it removes the process.”
The program leaves out the process because you’re supposed to leave out the process in a business presentation. Pitches are supposed to look smooth and shiny, so that no client can resist your proposal or that no audience can resist your ideas.
Education, on the other hand, should be at least a little bit messy. I prefer to teach the process so that students can come evaluate the historical facts I present them on their own. I use PowerPoint in my survey classes, but only for pictures and an absolute minimum of text (like people’s names). Giving students everything gives them no reason to listen.
So getting back around to Flamm, for professors to use PowerPoint well, they have to actively work against the software designer’s desire to get them to use more bells and whistles to jazz up whatever they’re presenting. What’s worse, new bells and whistles are required every few years in order to give users at least some justification for shelling out more for the updates other than the fact that Bill Gates is now only the third richest man in the world and therefore needs more money.
That’s Microsoft’s fault, not the professor’s. Nevertheless, I agree that a good teacher really should know better than to trust Microsoft to do their thinking for them.