Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 19, 2006

The Ubiquity of Powerpoint in the University

Powerpoint has become ubiquitous; its mind-numbing presence has moved out of the corporate world and has now colonized entire university departments and classrooms. What have we gained from this massive infusion of capital and technological infrastructure? Walk down the halls of any university building that has been remodeled to have the most advanced technological enhancements. You will see rooms, one after the other, with bored students sitting in semi-darkness jotting down the bullet points from the PPT presentation at the front of the room. Each semester I have refugees from psychology and business classes (these seem to predominate) who express such relief that they can actually TALK and DISCUSS assigned readings and DEBATE issues in my class. They are often juniors and seniors. They tell me that it is possble to go through an entire major in these departments viewing only Powerpoint slides. They also say they can go through an entire semester without interacting with any classmates or the professor. I am not surprised. In fact, I see evidence that some of my students are beginning to write in Powerpointese: “Do we need to write in complete sentences or can we just list?”

This is pedagogical progress? Look at the immense hidden costs of this:

  • a textbook publishng industry that is dedicated to providing professors with bushelfulls of helpful aids that they need only ‘plug and play,’ PPT slides being the most popular;
  • capital-intensive rewiring and reconfiguring of classrooms to take maximum advantage of these technological ‘advances’; theatre architecture is the most ‘efficient’ use of space for PPT;
  • expensive laptops and projectors;
  • technical support to maintain equipment and answer technical questions; and
  • professors (or their graduate students) spending hours and hours creating professional slides of their own, if they don’t like the textbook slides.

All of this to replace the minimal technology of plain transparency, pen, and overhead projector that can be used over and over again? And we wonder why tuition costs are skyrocketing? Do we have any concrete evidence that such vast expenditure of resources actually results in student learning? Do we have any more rigorous criteria for the ubiquitous use of PPT than that it is easy to use, ‘cool,’ and students like it? Have we dealt sufficiently with the pedagogical assumptions that guide and direct this fetish?

We are transformed into the image of that which we imagine and then build. Is this what the imago dei has come to mean in higher education for students and professors? Christians serious about higher education need look no further than this for challenges begging to be deconstructed and myths exposed.

See Edward Tufte’s “Powerpoint is Evil” and Langdon Winner‘s spoof on this kind of ‘education’ for a start. Incidentally, Tufte has given careful and nuanced attention to rescuing graphics from the advertisers and using it open up and deepen thought and understanding.

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Responses

  1. What you say is totally confirmed in my experience. PP is dull, lifeless and terribly overdone. Because of the imput requirements and the gismo factor, presenters are allowing it to carry the full weight of their presentations. It’s uses are more limited than the overhead before it–which were never more than allowing the display of key points in a few words, diagrams and technical data.

    We so often respond to technology like this with a strange combination of child-like wonder and a response to a presumed imperative that must be obeyed regardless of value and effectiveness. “Look what it can do!” we exult and then say how we better get with it because that’s the way things are going. If we can worship a lifeless thing with such fervour, it’s scary to think of what political leadership we can follow which may have a combination of charisma and apparent authority.


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