When High Tech Can Kill High Touch… (or Not).


PowerPoint is one of those applications that has become a staple of the average computer user. Literally millions of slideshows are created and shown every year, in board meetings, classrooms, and any other meeting space you can imagine. I’ve made my fair share of them, just like many of you who are reading this post.

One of the issues I have been thinking about is how a tool like PowerPoint influences teaching and learning, as it is so widely used. There has been an interesting discussion in various places on the web about this very topic, as I found out when perusing my feed reader earlier today.

I started by reading Jim Henderson’s post “PowerPoint again“, in which he writes that

using presentation software like PowerPoint can actually act as a barrier to communication. Many Powerpoint presentations turn the audience into passive recipients. Some speakers simply rattle through slides allowing no time for questions or discussion. In schools teachers need to be very selective in how they use presentation software and white boards. The best teachers engage with their pupils. They encourage pupils to question and to think and express themselves. Confident teachers are comfortable with this type of classroom atmosphere. Teachers that are not so skilled or confident can “hide” behind the presentation delivering a set of didactic presentations that don’t engage the pupils.

So … the argument here is that PowerPoint can perpetuate bad or outdated teaching, by amplifying it. In addition, Edward Tufte has written that

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.

Unfortunately, this seems to be true in all to many schools and classrooms and so it may come as no surprise that critices like Larry Cuban keep saying that educational technology is having no impact on learning.

A third opponent of PowerPoint is Tom Creed from Saint John’s University in Minnesota, who argued in “PowerPoint No! Cyberspace Yes!” that

digital technology can enhance our students’ learning, but only if our goals for our students’ learning drive its use.

And that is the key point, that again points out that it is not the technology, but what we do with it, that should determine what we use in schools and how we use it, as opposed to decisions based on cost, ease of use (esp. for adults and IT personnel), and potential danger or distraction. Note that Creed wrote this essay in 1997!

However, that is not to say that a multimedia presentation program like PowerPoint cannot be used for great teaching or learning. A counter-argument to Creed’s position was given by Tom Rocklin who argued that PowerPoint is not evil because it can be used in many different ways to support teaching and learning (although I wonder if his vignette might be a bit different if he updated it to 2006 standards).

Some examples of interesting and meaningful uses of PowerPoint that I have seen include student-created digital scrapbooks of their lives, a local history, comic books, and lots of different ways to organize and synthesize information into tables, graphs, timelines, flowcharts, etc. The key in each of these examples is that the learning was NOT driven by the technology or the teacher, but by the learner.

Another great example of the use of PowerPoint is David Byrne’s artwork, as described in this Wired article and on his website (a real R-Directed Learning activity, as Daniel Pink would say). Here is one example, called “Sea of Possibilities“:


Finally, the Creating Passionate Users blog provides some guidance for PowerPoint creators with their “Do You Need Slides” Test and the “Do My Slides Suck” Test, followed by putting “each slide on trial for its life. Ask it to defend itself. Show no mercy.” This is a post that every teacher who uses PowerPoint should read!

So where do I stand on the issue? Despite seeing David Byrne’s art for the first time today, I’m still fairly skeptical about the educational value of PowerPoint because of how I see it being used in the average classroom. Just like any other digital tool, it will only reach its potential if it is used in meaningful, relevant, and active ways for and by learners. And oh yeah, better graphics wouldn’t hurt either 😉


Image credits: http://www.sethgodin.com/freeprize/images/fpi-rb_06.jpg and http://www.davidbyrne.com/art/eeei/views/eeei_still6.php


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