[slide 1 - title]

PablumPoint: Creative Electronic Alternatives in the Classroom

Christopher D. Green
York University

Toronto, ON

[Presented 21 August 2005 at the Convention of the American Psychological Association.
For the PowerPoint slides that go with this talk, click here.]

When asked to join this panel, I thought I would probably talk mostly about the kinds of electronic scholarly projects with which I have been occupied over the past decade, none of which involve Power Point:

[slide 2 - my projects]

(1) electronic editions of previously published documents such as can be found on the Classics in the History of Psychology website, (2) the rise of Open Access repositories for current research such as in the History & Theory of Psychology Eprint Archive, (3) the rise of interactive electronic resources such as the History & Theory of Psychology Question & Answer Forum, and (4) the turn away from the impoverished realm of print toward multimedia formats such as in my documentaries An Academy in Crisis and Toward a School of Their Own. As I thought about it more, however, I saw that I had something else to say, or at least something to say again.

[slide 3 - my projects w/ X]

First of all, most of you probably already have a fair acquaintance with the projects I just named. Second, not all of them pertain directly to the classroom and so may not really be germane to the question of using PowerPoint. Third, as we have seen here today, there are many useful and productive ways in which PowerPoint can be employed for educational purposes. The real problem is that almost no one uses it in these ways. Indeed, instead of being used to enhance classroom presentations that have been thought out in advance, PowerPoint is typically used to give a predetermined structure to a set of ideas that either has not been well-structured by the presenter beforehand or, more sadly, it is used by presenters with wavering confidence in their own understanding of a topic to restructure their ideas into a homogenized and well-known, even if unsuitable, form.

[slide 4 - Tufte title page]

For those of you who have read Edward R. Tufte's famous 2003 paper, "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint," much of what I have to say here will not be new. I hope that the way in which I frame Tufte's ideas, however, will be.

[slide 5 - Tufte portrait]

For those of you not familiar with Tufte, he is a Yale statistician, now retired, who specializes in the designing visual display of quantitative information.  The main aim of his article on PowerPoint was to show that, far from being a tool that enhances the communication of important ideas, PowerPoint's numerous technical limitations typically serve to reduce, dilute, and curtail any sort of complicated or nuanced thought. The low resolution of the slides, he says, "leads to over-generalizations, imprecise statements, slogans, lightweight evidence, abrupt and thinly-argued claims."

[slide 6 - Pravda]

The sorts of graphics it allows are so simple-minded that he compares them to the kind of cartoon-graphics characteristic of Pravda in the soviet era.

[slide 7 - table of numbers]

Further, even moderately-sized tables of numbers are made virtually impossible.

[slide 8 - dumb bullet list]

The low resolution also forces one to replace detailed claims with bullet lists, which often leads one to reduce important ideas…

[slide 9 - earth-sun

…to mere platitudes.

[slide 10 - information channel analysis]

Indeed, he shows that, rather than enhancing communication, PowerPoint slides actually have far lower rates of information transmission than print or even speaking. The temptation to add the cutsie graphical "features" that PowerPoint specializes in, means that even less information often makes it on to the slide. This leads to a paradox:

[slide 11 - dumb bullet list]

"Thin content leads to boring presentations.

[slide 12 - dumb bullet list w/ gradient]

To make them unboring, PowerPoint Phluff is added,

[slide 13 - dumb bullet list w/ mountains]

damaging the content [further],

[slide 14 - dumb bullet list w/ clip art]

and making them even more boring,

[slide 15 - dumb bullet list w/ more clip art]

requiring more Phluff."

To demonstrate all this, Tufte presents a PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg Address that makes it a quite immemorable speech except perhaps for the hilarity it inspires. Here's just little taste…

[slide 16, 17, 18 - Gettysburg address]

[slide 19 - enough]

Now, I think it is fair to say that Tufte's paper on PowerPoint is widely thought of as being rather curmudgeonly. His analysis is often dismissed as expecting the worst of people and, of course, the people who object are those who come easily to the belief that they are well above the kind of thoughtless silliness against which he rails. He occasionally writes as though people are obliged to make the worst of PowerPoint.

Although I think that Tufte makes a number of important points with respect to the not-much-talked-about weaknesses of PowerPoint, I also think that there are certain environments in which PowerPoint flourishes. Those environments, however, are ones in which there really is a number of short, well-defined points to be communicated, perhaps illustrated by a couple of simple diagrams -- environments like training for work at McDonald's.  This is not often the case in any university worthy of the name.

Another place in which PowerPoint is useful is where it is heavily supplemented by another high-information channel of some sort.  For instance, if all you want PowerPoint to do for you is to store a number of pictures, and short video or audio clips, to supplement a lecture that otherwise ignores PowerPoint's existence, then so be it.

The problem comes when people decide -- usually tacitly -- that their lectures must conform to the structure imposed by PowerPoint and come to believe the nonsense that if an idea doesn't fit into a bullet-list item, then it isn't really suitable to the classroom. It is not so much that PowerPoint obliges people to act dumbly as that it seduces them into doing so.

Electronic media in the classroom can be a enormous boon, but like everything else -- books, handouts, overheads, and even chalk -- it is only as intelligent as the person using it.

What I would plead with those of you tempted to use PowerPoint is the following: think ahead of time about what ideas you want to express and the best way of expressing them fully. Then think about the full range of media available to you and use the ones best suited to the ideas you want to communicate.  If all you want PowerPoint to do is to store and present a set of still images, then given the high rate of technical failure associated with the computer setups surrounding PowerPoint, you might be better off using an overhead or slide projector. This follows directly from what I will immodestly call:

Green's First Law of Classroom Technology:

Other things being equal, a low-tech solution is always preferable to a high-tech solution because the high-tech solution has an indeterminately higher number of ways to fail.

If you really intend to present video or audio clips, PowerPoint may be a reasonable solution because of its media-management capabilities, especially if you intend to present a large number of them.

But why be limited by what PowerPoint provides or, more discouragingly, by what it subtly encourages one to do? Remember that PowerPoint wasn't made, first and foremost, for use in the classroom. It was made primarily for the business meeting, especially for the "pitch." And it suits that sort of environment best -- one where new "visions," "missions," and whatnot are announced more than debated, and where directions for future action are issued more than discussed.

But the typical PowerPoint format is coming to be virtually demanded by some students, undoubtedly in no small measure because it forces the appearance of clarity and explicitness even where some subtlety and nuance are required. Not only do they want their teachers to use it but they want to use it themselves when presenting in seminars (often hoping sizzle will stand in for substance). It seems to me that this is a trend that we, as educators and researchers, need to break away from (just as we have broken away from other confining pedagogical traditions and habits -- such as requiring the learning of dead languages, demanding the rote memorization of arcane grammatical conventions, and restricting our lectures to the boundaries of the school's historical religious denomination).

Similarly, I would argue that an ongoing stream of cascading bullet lists is almost never an effective way of encouraging thought in the classroom. If all you're doing is conveying names and dates of, say, important individuals and movements in the history of psychology, an overhead projector will do it just as well as PowerPoint, probably even better given Green's First Law.

If you are really intent on reducing people and movements to bullet lists, I think you should seriously reconsider that policy, keeping particularly in mind what message such a practice sends to your students about the nature of learning and scholarship. Here is a typical that example I found on the web.

[slide 21 - Plato bullet list]

It is, of necessity, so sketchy that, I think, it seriously distorts the import of Plato's contribution to Western thought. I would almost rather that students knew nothing of Plato than think that they have understood him by memorizing this list.

Now I suspect that many of you would argue that this is not all the information the student gets. This is only a skeleton of a live classroom lecture in which the Plato's thought is fleshed out. The outline is intended to serve only as a reminder of the lecture's "highlights." Possibly, however, I would argue that students benefit from having to convert ongoing speech into note-form. Note-taking is their first pass at cognitively processing the information that they are expected to internalize. It would be an interesting experiment to run (perhaps someone has done so) but I would be willing to bet that students forced to summarize an ongoing lecture into note form learn the material better, than those who simply read along with notes they are given. There is, of course, the problem of their mis-taking notes -- taking notes based on their own misunderstanding of the material, and then later studying their own misinterpretation -- but that problem is not resolved by giving them the notes the should have taken because it effectively discourages them from thinking -- even briefly -- about what is being said.

If providing "good" notes for students is really the goal, then PowerPoint is not the best means. Instead, write up a really good set of notes -- not one constrained by PowerPoint's profound technical limitations -- and give it to the students as a printed handout, or post it on your website and let the students print it as they see fit. If you also want the students to get the advantage of taking notes for themselves, then don't mention that you'll be giving them a set of notes until the end of term. Then they can compare their own notes with yours.

Now this may all seem like a lot of overkill. Why should anyone object to software package that could be used by any thinking person only to the degree that it satisfies that person's needs and goals? In fact, I agree with this. The problem is that PowerPoint -- a little like slot machines -- seems to hold a not entirely healthy fascination for an awful lot of people. Many people seem to think that their lectures are not "professional" or somesuch unless they have been reduced to, rather than enhanced by, PowerPoint's capabilities.  What I really would like to see is not that professors stop using PowerPoint altogether, but rather that they only use it when it serves well the needs of university-level education. My argument here is that this is the case far less often than many people seem inclined to assume.