The McDonaldization of technology in education – do you want slides with that?

ICICTE is all about people who use technology in education. This is a pretty broad aegis, which I think is great — highly specialist conferences sometimes seem in danger of disappearing up their own abstracts.

So I went along to ICICTE last week to tell people about our work with lecture slides and lecturers’ attitudes to slides, but conferences are all about the exchange of ideas, and I spent most of my visit listening to other people talk about their work.

I’m always fascinated to watch others interact with slideware and their audience, and the breadth of experiences that ensue. Standing up, sitting down, talking around the slides, reading out bits from slides, skipping over the slides. One sentence per slide; 21 lines of dense text (yes, I am sad enough to count). Ten slides, forty slides; both for a 12-minute presentation. Once they know what my research involves, people sometimes get a bit twitchy about their own slides (now I think about it, not unlike the reaction when you tell them you’re a psychologist — apparently I’m building a career on making people nervous), but I try not to be judgemental: variety is the spice of life — and anyway, someone might turn my results upside-down tomorrow.

One speaker I particularly enjoyed was Kevin Burden, who talked about furthering educators’ personal and professional development using ICT. He talked about the need to filter technology by its qualities and suitability for the task at hand: for example, blogging is a great way to promote teacher reflection, but might not be such a great tool for peer interaction. Essentially, he was promoting mindful use of technology.

Mindful use of technology is a real issue in education. Kevin’s approach is much more considered than the kind often taken by institutions, which have the amazing ability to issue blanket edicts (e.g., “Thou Shalt Use Blackboard”) without necessarily considering whether it’s in the best interests of the staff or students involved. I have nothing against Blackboard, and I support wholeheartedly the emergence of VLEs, but I sometimes think their implementation would be better left to relevant teaching staff. (Then again, to get everyone on board, sometimes you just have to legislate, because nature abhors cognitive dissonance)

Kevin’s talk got me thinking — again — about use of visual aids in teaching, and why people started using software like PowerPoint in the first place. Obviously it looked much better, more professional, than scrawled or photocopied overhead transparencies — and, like other new media, it was easily editable, copyable and redistributable. All great reasons for adopting a new technology.

But how many people used the jump from one form of technology to another to pause for a moment and reflect on whether these visual aids were always the right tools for the job?

Not very many; we see that now in the near-ubiquitous use of electronic slides to support lectures. So prevalent is the notion that lectures must have slides that when students miss a lecture, they don’t ask what we covered: they ask for a copy of the slides. To students, the slides are the lecture.

Which does make me wonder what value anyone thinks we’re adding by standing there at the front and clicking now and again to make the slides transition.

Simon Schurville, in his ICICTE keynote,* discussed the massification and McDonaldization of higher education: the idea that to deliver the same experience to so many, a very simple, identical, easily-replicable product is required. He asked, Is this really what we want higher education to be like?

I thought about the McDonaldization of lecture slides. Do we honestly want students’ experience of university, the world over, to consist of staring at yet another mindless set of bullet-points? Do we really want to foster the expectation that a lecture is not a lecture unless every point is clearly laid out in 24-point Times New Roman, up there on the screen and right there in front of you in all its dead-tree reproduced glory?

In short, do you really want slides with that?

* Sadly, Simon was taken ill a couple of days before the conference; the keynote was delivered in his absence by Greg Anderson and Raymond Welch.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The McDonaldization of technology in education – do you want slides with that?

  1. Good points to ponder. This applies to all kinds of education – not just “classroom” education, but any situation where you are sharing ideas between individuals. It must be progress when you are at least conscious that you may be promoting pablum. Slowly, we evolve….

    (PS The link to AJP is broken as of this writing.)

    • finiteattentionspan

      Absolutely – I see the application of these issues as being really widespread (god knows I steal half my ideas from the business world, anyway …) Progress is definitely slow, but it’s better than no progress.

      Fixed that link now – thanks for that.

      PS – ‘pablum’ was a new word for me! thank you :o)

  2. K

    As a student, I saw two types of lecture. There were those with lots of trivia to learn. Remembering lots of small facts made up most of the work and lectures were mostly spent repeating what is written on the slide. If you can get the slides you can skip the lecture. What you need for an exam is on the slide so they save you time learning facts not on the exam. Then there are lectures about understanding. Slides are briefer and contain either points to talk about or images hard to convey in speech. The material is either hard to write down or what’s important is what you do with that material. These are the lectures where you feel your time was well spent.
    It seems odd to me that not once did I see what is common in presentations of research work. The talk is about a summary and understanding. If you need more information there are pointers to where to get it. Your time is spent discussing what it all means and details can be researched later (or before). This is also the sort of presentation that the internet excels at. You can look up brief points as you go and bookmark details for later.
    Drifting further from the point, trying to drive down the cost of education without regard to result does encourage slides + easy to ask questions based on slides. Understanding is expensive to grade.

    • finiteattentionspan

      You highlight a really interesting issue: what are lectures for? In psychology, for example, we are bound to cover a specific curriculum, and a lot of teaching time is spent making sure we shovel enough content. But at the same time, it’s also very important to talk about ideas, which can be hard when you have a lecture theatre of 300 students, none of whom really wants to interact in the focus of quite so much peer scrutiny.

      At university (maybe I was lucky) I mostly had exactly the kind of lectures you describe, the ones like presentations of research: it was an overview, a gist; the idea was to give students something to shape their reading and thinking around. Colleagues often express concerns that student are now disinclined to read beyond the lecture material; when I increased the quantity of research material in a specific lecture last year, I saw a corresponding improvement in exam performance (in as much as people cited more research; not necessarily in marks overall).

      Understanding is expensive to grade.

      I’m still thinking about this one! Thanks for your input.

  3. Patrick

    Maybe we should go for the “Starbuck”isation of learning? You can get what you need, in the way that you need it – lectures or online or books (or all), big chunks or small.

    The obsessive use of technology as the only way to deliver learning is very dangerous, and rather lazy. Indeed, I think a lot of the behaviours you describe could stem from research-oriented lecturers minimising the work they need to do to prepare their teaching – just roll out last year’s Powerpoint slides…

    • finiteattentionspan

      Interesting choice of global megacorp metaphor. I like the idea that we cater to all, though I think — hope — we could do better than Starbucks. I think we have become very much like them in some ways: for example, we have created a demand for something that people didn’t know they needed or wanted before we told them that they did.

      The temptation to rely on last year’s visual aids isn’t the sole preserve of the electronic teaching era — before that, people had handwritten or photocopied acetates, and I bet the problem was just as common. I’d argue that, given the power of cut/paste, it’s now actually easier to re-jig lectures than at any time previously. Whether people do or not rests with them, however …

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