Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Keeping PowerPoint in its (rightful) place

Recently, various factors required me to produce lectures at short notice. I did not have a ready-made PowerPoint to call on and so I began to use PowerPoint in a different way. The planning process now begins with pencil and paper rather than directly typing into the slideware application.

PowerPoint does not lead from the front but plays a supportive role. So, for instance, the projector may be turned on in the classroom but no slide is displayed on the screen at the start of the lecture. Slides are called up as needed and then the screen is blacked out to allow the tutor to continue with the lesson.

Research diary entry
I jotted down [on paper] what I thought would be the lecture’s development. I knew what content needed to be covered and I reflected how I wanted to organise each part of the lesson as I developed my notes. Where I felt I needed some AV [audio-visual] support I indicated this in the notes, e.g. a PowerPoint slide. I did not write the notes out completely in advance and then begin to consider the content for the slides. When I judged that a slide was required, I went off to find one form a previous presentation I had prepared. So the lecture notes were built up step-by-step with the AV aids being marshalled as needed.

I felt more comfortable working with this approach. This is a shift from my usual practice in which I develop my ideas in PowerPoint itself. Two thoughts at this point:
Developing a lecture’s development/content on paper is much more flexible and comfortable an experience. It easy to cross out, to change the order of something. It’s also comfortable since it’s easy to think with pen and paper.

Although I’m very experienced at using PowerPoint, and comfortable in developing presentations with it, if I design my lectures using PowerPoint then the software is inevitably going to play a significant role in the lecture. This may not be a good thing. PowerPoint may not be required at all – or only in a minor role. So, on reflection, perhaps it’s best if I avoid using PowerPoint for designing the lecture.

Student engagement in lectures
I have noticed increased engagement with students when I teach with this style of using AV aids. Because the screen is only on intermittently – and neither I nor the students need to look at it – we are looking at each other more often. This gives me more opportunity to engage. So I make full eye-contact more often and directly. I direct questions more often to students. I query a student who may be working at her computer rather than engaging with the lesson. I get a stronger sense of a link with students and the development of a tutor/student relationship.

Teaching with the PowerPoint in pole position tends to be more presenting than engaging. Students read the screens and make notes – they often fail to make eye-contact with the tutor. As a teacher, my instincts are that the former teaching style is more effective.

Lecturing and a PowerPoint-centric culture

I keep a research journal and one of the outcomes of this reflection is the realisation that my teaching has become PowerPoint-centric. I teach in the ICT subject area of a university school of education and so my colleagues and I are technically knowledgeable. Over the last decade PowerPoint has come to be our standard presentation tool. More, we plan our lectures using PowerPoint; we meet together and agree a common presentation that will be used in lectures; and we store them on the network so that tutors can access them, as needed. In short, PowerPoint is at the centre of our planning and teaching. In the sections below I explore – using excerpts from my journal – how this came about and what the consequences might be.

PowerPoint dominance
Why has PowerPoint become so integral to my teaching style?
This week’s lecture (without a pre-prepared PowerPoint) has made me realise that I am using a PowerPoint for every lecture I teach. This – on reflection –is quite an extraordinary state of affairs. How has this come about? To answer this I need to track back some years.

My first use of slides was with the overhead projector. I used this technology on and off until around 1996. At the time I was working in a special school and I would give occasional CPD. The school had an LCD projector and at this time I used a presentation program – but only from time to time. This however changed radically when I returned to Roehampton [University] in 1999. The ICT rooms [where I taught] were equipped with projectors and I moved rapidly to transfer my lecture notes on to PowerPoint. My other ICT colleagues were also using the same presentation software.

What then happened was that the [ICT] teaching team moved to more collaboration in relation to the preparation of presentations. We teach multiple groups the same ‘content’ and so it was perceived that if tutors used a common PowerPoint then this would ensure that all students would receive the same course – even if they had a different tutor. This of course was driven by equal opportunities but also criteria used by OFSTED in their inspections.

PowerPoint becomes the ‘authorised version’
As a consequence, the PowerPoint became the ‘authorised version’ of the lecture. It had been constructed by one member of staff but in consultation with colleagues. So although ‘authorised’, it had also been produced as a result of consensus. So we arrived at a situation where:
- Every ICT lecture had an associated PowerPoint, prepared in advance;
- The PowerPoint had been prepared to cover the lecture content;
- The PowerPoint becomes authorised or accepted by [teaching] staff;
- It is a product of consensus.

We had got ourselves into a situation where every lecture (for our ITE courses) had a pre-prepared presentation in place and in practice tutors taught using PowerPoint.

Consequences of a PowerPoint-centric culture
What are the consequences of this?
Tutors deliver similar content to all groups [of students]. This helps ensure commonality across groups/tutors.

  • It is a supportive mechanism, e.g. it supports visiting lecturers who are only occasionally at college. It is supportive in other ways.
  • ICT shows lots of examples drawn from the internet. Hyperlinks can be pasted into a slide beforehand. This make PowerPoint an efficient launch platform to other resources.
    ICT makes extensive use of multimedia resources – these can be marshalled in PowerPoint and made available at the click of a mouse button.
  • The PowerPoint provides a ‘road map’ for the lecture. It may cause lectures to be predictable but it does assist in maintaining relevant content coverage.
  • PowerPoint presentations are centrally located on the server and accessible to all computers making it easy for tutors to access them.
  • PPs are uploaded to StudyZone so students can access them.

This would appear to be a ‘win-win’ situation. But is it?
I’ve described the consequences only in terms of benefits but it could be that there are some significant disadvantages.

Potential drawbacks
Teaching quality is impaired
Does this situation limit the scope of the tutor to teach as she or he wishes? Does it limit spontaneity or enthusiasm? Does it damage student-tutor interaction?

A narrow range of pedagogies are exemplified
Does using a PowerPoint encourage the tutor to ‘lecture’, i.e. presnt rather than teach? Are other pedagogies ruled out because PowerPoint does not easily support them?

Is knowledge representation impoverished?
Some kinds of knowledge suit screen display – but others clearly don’t. Are we tempted to ignore this because it becomes easier, more convenient t display on the screen? E.g. no photocopies need be made. So we’re more clinical but we could possibly be neglecting richer knowledge forms.

Is student engagement reduced?
Nothing seems to deaden, to quieten a group of students like a PowerPoint presentation. It puts the tutor (the pointer’) in full control and the students can potentially become passive listeners. Indeed, in some lectures the students appear to be taking few notes since they know that the PowerPoint is up on StudyZone.

Ouch! This is serious position.