Why PowerPoint Should Be Banned In Lectures

Any university teacher who does not harbour a painful recollection of a failed lecture is a liar. On one such occasion, I felt early on that I had lost the students entirely: those who hadn't sunk into comatose oblivion were listless and anxious. Ungracefully, I threw myself even deeper into my PowerPoint presentation to save me from total ruin. Years later, I can still hear myself reading aloud the bullet points from the overhead and see myself turning around to the students to sell these points to them.

University lecture picture from Shutterstock

Luckily, I have no recollection of what the students thought of it, but my most painful memory is the experience of boring myself. When that happens, it is time to change one's ways. That's why I've led a move to ban PowerPoint from lectures.

There are a host of possible reasons for a lecture going wrong: a badly planned course, inadequate preparation, feeling uninspired on the day, disengaged students, a crowd that's too big, a poorly designed auditorium. To this bulleted list of catastrophes comes PowerPoint.

The physical face-to-face lecture is potentially a complex and open event where the students, the readings, the lecturer and a case-based or theoretical problem interact. A PowerPoint presentation locks the lecture into a course that disregards any input other than the lecturer's own idea of the lecture conceived the day before. It cuts off the possibility of improvisation and deviation, and the chance to adapt to student input without veering off course.

This is usually what makes such presentations so painfully boring: while it quickly becomes evident to the audience where the presenter is going, he or she has to walk through all the points, while the audience dreams that the next slide might be more interesting.

Not fit for teachers

Yet, to be interesting and relevant in a lecture, teachers need to ask questions and experiment, not provide solutions and results. Unfortunately, PowerPoint is designed to provide just that. Originally for Macintosh, the company that designed it was bought by Microsoft. After its launch the software was increasingly targeted at business professionals, especially consultants and busy salespeople.

But during the 1990s it was adopted more generally by corporations as it became part of the Microsoft Office package, which explains the executive summaries, one-liners, ubiquitous "deliverables" and action plans. Its way into academia was then helped by the increased pressure on faculties to deliver more teaching and the increased demand from a more diverse student population to be more concretely guided through the jungle of knowledge.

As it turns out, PowerPoint has not empowered academia. The basic problem is that a lecturer isn't intended to be selling bullet point knowledge to students, rather they should be making the students encounter problems. Such a learning process is slow and arduous, and cannot be summed up neatly. PowerPoint produces stupidity, which is why some, such as American statistician Edward Tufte have said it is "evil".

Of course, new presentation technologies like Prezi, SlideRocket or Impress add a lot of new features and 3D animation, yet I'd argue they only make things worse. A moot point doesn't become relevant by moving in mysterious ways. The truth is that PowerPoints actually are hard to follow and if you miss one point you are often lost.

Picture: lex McKee

On top of this comes the ambivalence of what's in those bullet points. In my presentations, the text on slides are really just my private and often hastily written down thoughts. Unlike my other published and peer-reviewed work, no one has seen or criticised my PowerPoints. Yet the students perceive my bullet points as authoritative, and they would often quote them in their assignments instead of going through the toll of finding the meaningful points in the real texts from the course.

Free from PowerPoint

While successfully banning Facebook and other use of social media in our masters programme in philosophy and business at Copenhagen Business School, we have also recently banned teachers using PowerPoint. Here we are in sync with the US armed forces, where Brigadier-General Herbert McMaster banned it because it was regarded as a poor tool for decision-making. We couldn't agree more, although we do allow lecturers to use it to show images and videos as well as quotes from primary authors.

Apart from that, the teachers write with chalk on the blackboard (or markers on the whiteboard). Contrary to what PowerPoint allows, the chalk and blackboard enable us to note down points from the students alongside and connected to the points that we ourselves develop. Most universities are actually defending Microsoft's monopoly by stealth, by architecturally letting the projector and PowerPoint take precedence over other technologies such as the blackboard.

Of course, lifting the uneasy burden of PowerPoint off the teacher's shoulders places higher demands on planning. Yet, while at our masters programme we as teachers have a clear plan in terms of what should happen every minute of the lecture, the exact content should remain variable and open-ended. In order to support interaction, the students sit with visible nameplates, also introduced in the first lecture of the course last year. This way less active students can be called upon to expand on the concepts and connections growing on the blackboard, either from their seat or by coming to write on it.

In all my years of using PowerPoint the traditional way, students unvaryingly complained about not getting the slides in advance of the lecture. Today, the students don't mention the lack of PowerPoints at all -- they only call for a better order on my blackboard. They are right, but contrary to the rigid order of a PowerPoint presentation, the blackboard order can actually be improved in real time.

Without the temptation of PowerPoint, lecturers have nothing but the students to fall back on. That seems like a much more promising turn of events.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bent Meier Sørensen is Professor in Philosophy and Business at Copenhagen Business School.


Comments

    The slides should be secondary information that feeds from you as the lecturer, not the other way around.

    Any slide should be self contained, and give context as a photo on a phone so that students can refer to it from their notes to get more information.

    Someone else not old enough to remember even worse horrors on overhead projector slides before PowerPoint et al came along

    I spent the last 8 years as a full time student, and I DREADED going to the lectures of teachers who read the lesson off a projection (whether it was powerpoint or not).

    The best lecturer I ever had spent the entire lecture doing by hand precisely what he wanted us to do by hand, captured by camera and projected for us to see, while he verbally explained what he was doing.

      I had a CompSci lecturer who (mis)copied the textbook onto overhead projector slides and read them in a monotone for 50 minutes, without adding any further explanation or focus. Many of my mathematics lecturers simply wrote continually on the blackboard for 50 minutes x 5 lectures/week x 12 weeks and that was what became our curriculum. Everyone was so intent on keeping up with his notation that there was no time for comprehension or questioning.

      One of my best Physics lecturers gave us what were essentially PPT slide notes (pre PPT era) at the start of term so that we could focus on what he was saying and annotate the notes.

    So... you know you can write on PowerPoint presentations in real time? You could use them like a blackboard but with the added benefits that come with the digital format (e.g. distribution, archiving/searching, etc.)

    PowerPoint is a just tool and it can be used a lot of ways that don't start and end with bullet points. It should be up to the professional speakers to decide how this, or any tool, can be used to add value and recognise when either the tool isn't right or they aren't appropriately placed to use it. If they don't know then there should be training to help them.

    Tools like PowerPoint are evolving and becoming much more collaborative, particularly as the IT industry starts using them for events like Google IO & Microsoft Build and as remote working becomes more prevalent. Banning them completely seems very heavy handed and short sighted.

      If lecturers were held to the same learning standards as their students...

    I've given a lot of presentations over the years, both in Uni and business contexts, and I don't think I've ever just read out the notes from a Powerpoint presentation. They're a launching point, not the core of the lecture.

    One thing I find extremely annoying is when a lecturer gives a powerpoint presentation and tells everybody that the slides will be available AFTER the lecture. That means I have no way to annotate the content of a lecture while it is being given. The lecturer may well use their slides as a platform from which to launch a decently deep discussion, but if I try to take notes of the deep stuff, it's left context-free unless I also try to note down the basic slide info as well - and there's never time to do both.

    Even if I get a PDF, Acrobat now lets you annotate PDFs.

    Some people will assume that once they have the slides they don't need to attend the lecture. Those people deserve all the marks they wind up getting.

    Last edited 03/05/15 10:03 pm

    If I were Microsoft (which I'm not) I'd say, if you don't like PowerPoint, use One Note to handwrite, draw and illustrate on a projector. Don't have to go back to the manual blackboard to get the same effect. And at the end of the lecture, the lecturer can send the files for what's on the "board" to everyone. This way people who are not good at taking notes while listening carefully (like me) are not disadvantaged either. This should be about addressing a problem or a need. Not bashing a particular tool.

    PS. You could well use another tool instead of One Note. I was just giving that as an example from the Microsoft ecosystem.

      You don't even need to use onenote, pen enabled tablets can write directly on the slide and keep it after

    This is just an example of a teaching issue not a presentation tool issue.

    I use Powerpoint extensively and get good feedback. It's just a case of using it wisely. I tend to use the slides as an aide-mémoire and have media or only a few words per slide. Thereafter it's all verbatim and discussion.

    The article and the comments all pre-suppose that lectures are the best education approach, or even a viable/useful one. These days, the pressure is to deliver this sort of material in video format online so that one can spend time with students in face-to-face circumstances in more tutorial-like, problem-solving activity. The preparation of material in PowerPoint or other presentation software becomes subordinated to (video) production pressures.
    I do agree with the comment that if you're just reading the PowerPoint presentation, you're doing it wrong.

    Reading a powerpoint slide to an audience is just plain dumb.

    The audience will read in 1 second what takes the reader 5-10 seconds to read to them. After the audience reads it they go to sleep waiting for the reader to catch up. In a lecture hall, the rudest of the students fire spit balls at the lecturer in an effort to stay awake, greatly amusing the rest of the students, and then the uncomprehending lecturer cracks the shits and walks out, not realising that rather than being honoured as the PhD genius he/she believes he/she is, he/she is really just a dumb shit with no social or teaching skills.

    A competent lecturer says something interesting or emphasises a key point that is not already a verbatim read from the slide, and in doing so engages the attention of the audience and makes them think a little bit rather than putting them all to sleep, then moves to the next slide.

    Doh.

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