Is banning Powerpoint from the classroom the best we can do for digital, inclusive education?

Copenhagen Business School Professor Bent Meier Sörensen shared his interesting piece Let’s ban PowerPoint in lectures – it makes students more stupid and professors more boring on The Conservation - a blog/discussion space I can only recommend highly for academically-driven content that often includes a nuanced debate

The overall tone of the his post is clear: Banning Powerpoint from the classroom leaves teachers and students better off.

Based on my experience with our blended learning Communication for Development MA and the discussions within our Glocal Classroom network of universities, I tend to disagree - not with the general sentiment that all of us have suffered through a more than fair share of bad Powerpoint presentations, but with the notion of a technology-free, disconnected classroom and the traditional learning environment it often represents.

In my comment, I will focus on three aspects: First, the dominance of one-size-fits all technology approaches throughout the university, second, today’s (social) media realities and third, the growing pressure and opportunities for higher education’s role in society.

One software package fits all: Why do teachers and universities adopt so few digital learning tools?

I find it quite important to move away from one specific software product - as tempting as bashing Microsoft Powerpoint is.
Meier Sörensen dismisses alternatives such as Prezi in one short sentence (
yet I’d argue they only make things worse’) and if I remember correctly ‘Storify’ (great for curating and sharing digital content) is not mentioned once in the post or the comments.
We can discuss the pros and cons of various tools some other time, but what I find important is that many teachers are left on their own when they prepare their teaching and Microsoft’s presentation software quickly becomes the default. But blaming teachers is certainly too shortsighted. Engaging teaching material requires flexibility and openness - and by now your head of IT has already fainted…
As much as I understand security and legal issues in a public organization that many universities are, I also believe that a lack of flexibility plays into the hands of bad Powerpoint presentations that should be banned from the classroom. Centralized, cross-cutting IT solutions are advertised and sold by all the big companies that approach universities and promise to prepare them for the digital age. A bad Powerpoint presentation is often the educational tip of the IT iceberg-and you want to make sure that your classroom does not turn into the Titanic (unless you teach a film class and want to re-enact the famous Leo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet scene…).

Banning Powerpoint can easily turn out to be shooting the messenger who is crying for help to be practical and efficient in an organizational environment that is often inflexible.

From second screening to collaborative social media: Embedding the classroom in the 21st century
Banning Powerpoint (or mobile phones and computers) from the classroom may seem like a quick-fix, but creating a walled oasis from the real world is not my understanding of educational efforts. The real challenge today is to find pedagogical approaches that harness the power of second-screening, periscoping, blogging etc. and prepare students for interactive, digital environments.
Creating a presentation without visual aids can be one exercise, but encouraging participatory and collaborative approaches is equally important. A class Wiki, tumblr or Twitter handle may require more preparation time as they are more dynamic, real-time tools than updating your Powerpoint slides from 5 semesters ago, but they can be effective tools that build bridges between traditional learning objectives and digital social realities.

The question is not ‘will weaker students benefit from a distraction-free environment?’, but ‘how can I set up the classroom that weaker students can learn from the stronger students who are better able to manage multimedia environments?’.

Embracing ‘ooc’: Towards democratic, global, accessible & connected classrooms
One commentator on The Conversation piece remarked that Powerpoint presentations are useful, maybe even necessary, for digital learning activities. I think this is not just an important point, but says quite a lot about the ethos of your classroom, course or university. 

I strongly believe that classrooms should be connected as much as possible - from shareable presentations to live streams and digital interactions. This may be less of an issue for excellent, well-funded institutions like the Copenhagen Business School who can earn capital through exclusivity, but many ‘normal’ universities have already been or will be asked to do ‘more with less’.
Whether you like it or not and whether your course is ‘massive’ (MOOC) or ‘participatory’ (POOC) – it will likely become more of an ‘open online course’, a classroom that leaves a digital trace. Powerpoint presentations are only one small pillar in this model to create relatively open and accessible learning environments.

I am not defending bad Powerpoint presentation, of course, but I do not really feel comfortable with the notion of ‘banning’: Teachers, students, managers and IT staff have the challenging task to provide flexible, engaging solutions to teaching and education in the 21st century. The ceiling-mounted projector, connected to a floor-mounted PC with proprietary software from global companies is not the set-up we should be aiming at-because uncreative environments all too easily lead to uncreative traditional lecturing situations. But as flexible as the tools are, they will always compete with other distractions-in my experience ‘build it and they will come/participate’ does not always work.

The blended learning environment I envision should be participatory - but very often includes an element of lecturing and facilitation without necessarily ‘flipping’ classrooms and power relations entirely.
At the end of the day, the more open the class is, the more digitally connected it is, the more it resembles our contemporary times - and good Powerpoint presentations can play an important part in creating global classrooms.

Comments

  1. My first reaction to seeing the words "banning" and "powerpoint" next to each other was: "Yes! And replace it with Openoffice.org's Impress! (or any other open source alternative".

    The reluctantcy towards free, viable alternatives to costly IT solutions puzzles me. It is not a matter of learning something new (after all those who have migrated to Microsoft office 2003 from a previous package had to learn to use a new interface from scratch). I rekon this is linked to a matter of fashion (just like buying a specific brand of biscuits, when the no-name one is produced in the very same plant in an identical way) and a lack of trust towards free things. Having this attitude in a teaching enviroment, where tomorrow's (but also today's) workers are trained also helps perpetuating this status quo. But this is a bit Off-Topic.

    From the teaching point of view, I have understood that Powerpoint is being accused of keeping the lecture on a specific track, discouraging any on-fly customization based on the student's feedback. A possible, simple solution: changing the Power point presentation on the fly (or having an assistant changing it).
    The result may be not so neat as a Powerpoint presentation. But it can be easily saved and disseminated. And it is easier to read than many handwritten notes on a board.

    Of course, a crash course on how to make interesting (and good-looking) presentations would be useful - at least to people like me, with a poor taste for beauty).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great discussion of my modest contribution,
    Best, Bent

    ReplyDelete
  3. great discussion of my modest essay, plus looking fw

    ReplyDelete
  4. thanks for discussing my points in a fine spirit

    ReplyDelete

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