Monday, April 2, 2012

The Traditional Lecture and Fumbling with PowerPoint

In his recent article for The Guardian Higher Education Network on the early adopter universities that are leading the way with educational technology, Steven Schwartz describes how, in the near future, technology will be tailored to students' needs and that online offerings will not be "merely... images from a camera plonked in front of a traditional class with a traditional lecturer fumbling with a traditional PowerPoint presentation".

This got me thinking as to how ubiquitous PowerPoint (PP) has become in the standard university lecture. What percentage of lectures are delivered through the medium of PowerPoint, Keynote or other presentational technology? Of course it may depend on the discipline but, from my own experience, I would hazard a guess that well over 50 per cent of all lectures are being communicated using PP. This means, as Schwarz states, that 'fumbling' with PP for a lecture is now tradition, it's now the norm.

The research on the use of PP for lectures is polarising. There's research on how students much prefer lectures with PP and the notes that can be generated to accompany the lecture (for example see Nicholson, 2002; and Amare 2006) and yet there is also evidence on how much students dislike PP. This heartfelt quote is from a series of comments on a blog giving tips for lecturing medical students;

"I could simplify all the advice to lecturers by saying only: Don't use PowerPoint! Anything else you do will be brilliant compared to even the best PP lecture. I promise".

The issue I want to raise here is that the advent of presentational technology in the lecture hall may well be an example of technology making things worse rather than better. Most disruptive technological innovations result in changing the market by replacing one technology with a newer one that creates a value network. Before presentational technologies, lecturers used acetate overheads, a carousel of photographed slides, photocopied handouts, whiteboards or blackboards. The growth of the use of PP for lecture presentations has been immense and yet it's not at all clear that this technological disruption has added any value. In fact, there are some clear arguments that it has had adverse effects on teaching and learning.

Most notable of these is Tufte (2003), who derided PP's “preoccupation with format not content”. Lowenthal (2009) suggests that presentational software encourages a lecturer-centred, screen-centred and technology-centred lecture. James et al. (2006) gives an account of the research into the impact of PP based lectures on cognitive recall. Overall here and elsewhere, the results seemed mixed as to whether recall is helped or hindered.

Rather than rehashing whether PP is good or 'evil' (Tufte again), there are several other points I want to make specifically about the use of it for delivering lectures.
First, irrespective of whether individual lectures using PP are any good or not, there has been little thought given to the students' experience over several of these lectures during a busily timetabled day. Contrast this with the 'Death by PowerPoint' feeling that any lecturer at conference knows only too well.  Do we ever think about our students' experience across a set of PP lectures? Do we ever ask about this in evaluations?

Second, in most of the formats that PP has largely replaced, there is an ability to annotate or adapt content in real time that is almost completely missing from PP.  Instead PP lectures are presented as complete and fixed, which means that opportunities for digression are difficult because there will be no slides to support those asides and, indeed no accompanying notes. This may mean that students regard any departures 'off script' as less important, when in fact they may be the exact opposite. In addition, the complete linear format of PP lectures mean that a lecturer must make it through all of their slides within the alloted time or else leave the students hanging in some kind of unsatisfactory PP interruptus, robbed of the full experience. All in all it's difficult to see how this lack of flexibility can be a step forward.

Finally and related to the previous point, earlier methods afforded the student audience the opportunity to see the 'crafting' of lecture as the lecturer built up the points through scribbling on an overhead projector with different coloured pens or executed teasingly slow reveals of covered up points on acetates. There was also the performance art that was, first the erasing of a previous lecturer's work from the black/white board and then the filling up of every centimetre of space with an equally transient set of points, to stand somewhat exhausted in front of their finished artefact at the end of an hour. This evidence of effort and of the enthusiasm of the lecturer is crucial, according to Aarabi (2007) who explains how this performance element demonstrates to students the effort that has gone into the lecture. It creates both an authenticity for the students and also an appreciation because the lecture has been bespoke for them. This contrasts strongly with the PP lecture, where this effort is hidden from the student and the ease with which the lecturer moves from one slide to another belies the work that has gone into its construction beforehand.

Of course there are brilliant PP lectures with content, images and video that far surpasses anything that earlier technologies could achieve, but I think these are rare amongst the bread and butter PP university lectures. Perhaps PP has contrained rather than enabled the lecture