Sunday, June 6, 2010

Video killed the radio star...

...but Powerpoint killed the academic lecture.

Most of our lecturers are mediocre. A handful are heinous; only a few have truly mastered the art of engaging an audience with the spoken word. It's no wonder, really, because when in the course of an academic career does one receive the training to do so? Perhaps high school, perhaps the dreaded Public Speaking 101 in college. The curriculum design committees have done their level best to ensure we are lectured to by the best and brightest in their fields--but these people have achieved their status by writing excellent grant proposals and excellent journal articles. Sure, they may present research at conferences, but no one's going to take away their funding for putting the audience to sleep. For one thing, no one's testing the audience on the material later, and for another, the audience can always consult the original article for more information.

I think, though, that Powerpoint subtracts from rather than enhances most lectures. I've had enough powerpoint presentations to create for various classes, I know how difficult a medium it is to control. It is SO easy to think that pretty slides are useful, or that any bulleted list is automatically an organized list, or that just because you have a cool animated transition between slides, a real, logical transition between topics occurred. It allows lecturers to remove the organization of their lecture from their mind, put it on what amounts to a stack of cards, and thereby completely detach themselves from the process and progress of the lecture.

Powerpoint also disengages the audience from the presenter and presentation. Powerpoint enables instructors to cram more information into one lecture. The audience (that's us, the students!) are taking notes and wish to review at a later date the information in the presentation! I cannot write as fast as someone speaks. I don't mean that students should write every word down, either. But when lecturers write on an overhead or chalkboard, students have more time to make our notes coherent. And whatever has been written or diagrammed stays there while the lecturer speaks about it, even after they've moved on, unlike the information on a powerpoint slide that is there for 30 seconds and then replaced by the next slide. I promise you, a room of students who are bent on copying every word on the slide before it disappears are not reading any of those words, or listening to any of the words being spoken by the lecturer. The solution offered to this problem is to supply the class with a printed copy of the powerpoint slides, but this further disengages the audience. What's the point of listening, if all the information is already in my hand?

The result is a vicious cycle. Powerpoint lectures are difficult lectures to learn anything from, because we students simply can't write fast enough. If, on an exam, a question refers to something not written in the notes, the students revolt. Professors then attempt to cram every word into their powerpoint slides, rendering them even less useful during the lecture, while students drowse and daydream during the lecture, because everything that might be on the exam is written on the powerpoint slides they have printed out in front of them, so why listen?

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