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