Is PowerPoint stripping our generation of its intelligence? Edward Tufte certainly thinks so. Tufte, an expert in the visual representation of information, is a harsh critic of PowerPoint. He argues that PowerPoint has allowed presenters and educators to replace serious analysis with charts and clip art. Even worse, Tufte claims, is that PowerPoint’s bulleted text omits the critical relationships between ideas, which in turn, conceals their logical construction.
Tufte emphasizes PowerPoint’s limitations by offering a PowerPoint version of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Address is neither inspiring nor moving once it’s butchered into sixteen bullet points and spread across six slides. Indeed, Lincoln’s s peech, when re-mediated to PowerPoint, not only lacks force and effectiveness but is also reduced to nonsense. It’s fair to wonder if our professors’ fascinating ideas are being similarly lost in translation to PowerPoint.
However, how do we address PowerPoint’s limitations when the software has become a staple of higher education, even at selective institutions like Dartmouth? Professors appreciate PowerPoint because it conveys information efficiently; students like PowerPoint because they believe it makes learning easier. But at what cost? We need to consider what effect PowerPoint is having on our learning styles. Are we content to “dumb down” complex information to no more than seven lines of text per slide and perhaps an image? Can instructors justifiably expect students to recreate and contextualize sophisticated arguments from bullet points? In embracing PowerPoint as a learning tool, we’ve traded the nuanced and complex for the efficient and easy.
While PowerPoint may seem to be a “fix-it” for professors who seek a convenient way to highlight the main points of their lectures, PowerPoint in fact limits the discourse and the learning that can occur in a classroom. First, PowerPoint creates a linear lecture with little room for discussion or digression. Indeed, a professor who is “locked in” to his PowerPoint might discourage questions regarding slide number four because the information has been previously deposited onto slide number fourteen. PowerPoint also controls the pace of learning. Professors compose their slideshows not in response to the needs of their students but rather according to an “ideal lecture” that they have in their heads. The confines of the class hour rarely conforms to this idea, and so professors often find themselves rushing through the last few slides of a lecture in order to finish in one class period, leaving students overwhelmed and confused.
The limits of PowerPoint are exacerbated by the conventions of good PowerPoint “style.” All of the PowerPoint websites and tutorials advise users not to cram slides with a superfluous amount of content in order to avoid overwhelming viewers. Instead, they advise us to parcel information into short, choppy sentences placed onto numerous slides. Indeed, the limitations of PowerPoint make us wonder if PowerPoint is indeed superior even to the chalkboard:
As we can see from this video, inspired in part by the thinking of educator Michael Wesch, the chalkboard provides a more interactive form of learning than PowerPoint. Students can co-create what is written on the chalkboard. The chalkboard can reflect the class discussion rather than determine it. The chalkboard also requires professors to slow down as they write, giving students a chance to ponder the information they have just been presented. Clearly, new technology isn’t always better technology. Professors should examine all implications of PowerPoint before they embrace it as a learning tool.
Also take a look at:
University of Minnesota’s Active Learning with PowerPoint