Needed: Freedom from PowerPoint

You’re on Facebook. You’re also in class. Your eyes flicker from screen to screen. Your neighbor is playing Minesweeper. The girl in front of you is checking the sales at Urban Outfitters. You struggle to pay attention to the lecture, which has been condensed into bullet points projected overhead. The professor reads directly off the screen, which has itself been copied straight from the textbook. She seems as bored as the rest of the class.

Unfortunately, this scenario has become increasingly commonplace in university classes. While technological advances have enhanced the educational experience, technology overkill threatens it. Perhaps we’re headed to that point of no return: former technological tools are becoming foundations.

Take, for instance, PowerPoint. This slideshow program started out as an impressive medium for presentations. Ten years ago, any businessman or student could guarantee his or her project’s success simply by adding a flashy PowerPoint, complete with sound effects and star wipes. However, in the past several years, nearly everyone – at any age, any level of education – has learned how to use this once-intimidating program.

The result? PowerPoint has flooded every field, used for “easy” communication when clearer communication may be desired instead. We can see this happening in our classrooms, as professors increasingly rely on their slides to make their point for them. Distressingly, this is happening elsewhere – and in more places than you might think.

The military has used this tool for a while, but according to a recent piece by the New York Times, every briefing, no matter how complicated or short, has been conducted almost entirely with PowerPoint. “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster told the New York Times. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

We may feel the same frustration as we sit in our overflowing lecture halls, led through complex ideas only by the light of the silvery PowerPoint slides. With PowerPoint, both teacher and student can switch to auto-pilot. Why bother taking notes if you can check the PowerPoints online later?

PowerPoint not only creates the illusion of control, but also the illusion of saving time and energy. In that same New York Times report, a captain guessed that he spent an hour a day preparing PowerPoint slides for military briefs. Professors who are newly dependent on PowerPoint may find themselves devoting a large part of their week to preparing their slides, perhaps assuring themselves that they’ll use the same ones next quarter. But requirements and coursework keep shifting, and professors keep returning to their slides to update, shift and edit.

In class, PowerPoints prove to be further counter-productive. The teacher can click through the slides, the students can skim them, and both of them can be in other places at once. Like, say, musing about their current research outside of the classroom, or clicking through endless photos of the weekend’s parties on Facebook.

Of course, while attending a prestigious research university like UC Irvine has many benefits, the focus on research can distract from actual teaching. Unfortunately, many professors may be more involved with their research and working with graduate students than teaching their undergraduate classes.

Tools like PowerPoint may seem like the ultimate salvation for the busy professor (or teacher, as more and more high schools start to adopt a similar lecturing style). It’s a shame that the brightly colored slides are obnoxious and reductive, leaving many students with a shallow understanding of the reading material. True, students are supposed to be doing the supplementary reading outside of class, but who can focus on anything that’s on a physical page? And why bother? PowerPoints trick us in another way: both the presenter and his/her audience are left with the illusion of understanding.

Ultimately, the best way to teach is on a more individual basis, with a teacher pontificating to rows of students, and not a single flickering screen. Students crave real interaction, and professors do too. In fact, the real culprit here may not be technology so much as the ballooning sizes of classrooms. A PowerPoint show would look awkward in a room of five people, and rightly so. The bullet points should be in the professors’ hands and traveling through students’ pens, with enough room in-between to incorporate discussion notes.

PowerPoint is also admittedly useful for more technical classes, where a professor might waste valuable class time with drawing an intricate diagram or formula on the board. It’s also useful for more visual lectures, where a professor could include pictures on most of the slides to illustrate the meat of his/her lecture.

However, we could all agree that, despite these allowances, PowerPoint – and technology in general – needs to be used in moderation. That includes you, students who complain about your professor’s reliance on PowerPoint slides. Get off Facebook already, and pay attention to your (increasingly expensive) university lecture.

Truly, technology giveth and it taketh away.

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