My Facebook feed was exploding today with many of my colleagues commenting on an article on the Guardian by Andrew Smith on “How PowerPoint is killing critical thought.” The conversation in which most of my colleagues were engaged really came down to “does PowerPoint have value in educational settings?” Some folks posted about the need for consistency across multiple sections of classes. Another discussed the need for focusing larger groups of students. Some shared that PowerPoint was great for sharing quotes or images or discussion prompts. The conversation was really lively with some friends sharing praise for a presentation style called Pecha Kucha. In Pecha Kucha, 20 slides are shared for 20 seconds each. With the short presentation (a little over six minutes), the presenter is forced to give concise explanations that don’t rely heavily on text-based slides. While it might be great for a series of student presentations, I think it would tough for an instructor to use Pecha Kucha in any wholesale way in their classes.
Returning to the Guardian article, however, Smith’s main point was that the use of PowerPoint was diminishing cognitive engagement between students and instructors. I don’t disagree. Several years ago, I co-wrote a book titled Authentic integration with technology: A student centered approach and cited some of the same reasoning and research that Smith does. In the book, my co-author and I write:
“Because of its ubiquity, many teachers never question using PowerPoint with their students. They convert their lectures to PowerPoint slideshows thinking they are just replacing their chalkboards and overhead projectors with digital presentations. We argue, however, that before a teacher incorporates a tool into an instructional setting, she or he needs to consider the best way to use it to promote student learning. PowerPoint, while being a comprehensive presentation tool, has many detractors who argue against its use in education and elsewhere. In his article, PowerPoint Is Evil, Edward Tufte (2003), a noted theorist of information presentation, argues that using PowerPoint weakens the analytical quality of a presentation by reducing its verbal and spatial reasoning. Tufte points out that most presentation slides include 40 or fewer words, reducing a detailed argument to eight seconds of reading. This process, Klemm (2007) writes, leads to sound-bite thinking and sloganeering, which reduces the classroom discourse, especially in regard to complex material. Klemm also argues that traditional PowerPoint presentations in educational settings create an “entertain me” environment and reduce the amount of teacher-student interaction in the class. Students often lose interest in the presentation, especially when they realize that teachers will distribute the slides. Adams (2006) writes that the structure of PowerPoint templates can pervade teachers’ thoughts and constrain their lesson planning. Teachers feel forced to design lessons that fit into the PowerPoint templates of a main idea and supporting bullets. This structure does not fit well with every content area and is not a natural format for narratives. To demonstrate this, Peter Norvig, a researcher for Google, adapted Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” for PowerPoint. The slideshow reduces Lincoln’s eloquence into awkward bulleted lists that demonstrates the difficulty that users may face when trying to communicate through PowerPoint.” (Marcum-Dietrich & Dreon, 2008)
The real challenge, however, is that while some instructors are overly suspicious of using PowerPoint, they don’t carry that same skeptical eye to other processes, procedures, and norms of practice in their classroom. I’m a big believer in sociocultural perspectives on teaching and learning and I typically rely on the activity theory framework to visualize how learning happens in online and face-to-face environments. In activity theory, learning isn’t just an internal process that happens inside a student’s brain. It’s impacted by external forces like the instruments that are used and the classroom community that exists. Developed by Russian theorists like Vygotsky, Leont’ev and others, activity theory is usually represented using a triangle of interdependent factors (see below). While “instruments and mediating artifacts” like PowerPoint are important, there’s a lot more going on. Beyond the use of any single tool, it’s critical that we see the importance of all of these factors and lend a critical eye to ALL of the processes, choices and decisions in which we engage in our classrooms.
Adams, C. (2006). PowerPoint, habits of mind, and classroom culture. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38(4), 389–411.
Klemm, W. R. (2007). Computer slide shows: A trap for bad teaching. College Teaching, 55(3), 121–124.
Marcum-Dietrich, N., & Dreon, O. (2008). Authentic Instruction With Technology: A Student-centered Approach. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co..
Tufte, E. (2003) “Powerpoint is evil.” Wired Magazine (September). Full free text is available at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html.