Teaching naked in the age of big education

PowerPoint is currently making headlines in education, though probably not for the reasons Microsoft would like.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that José Bowen of Southern Methodist University has banished computers from his classrooms:

Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web.

That same article in the Chronicle cites research conducted by my colleague Sandi Mann, showing that many students find lectures boring, and that the most commonly-cited reason for this is use of PowerPoint.

So perhaps ‘teaching naked’ (sans PowerPoint, gentle reader) might cure students’ boredom and encourage instructors to write more creative, interactive classes?

Well, while I’m curious to know where José Bowen’s nebulous ‘often’ statistic comes from, it may be true that lack of confidence encourages instructors to rely more on slides: in a recent pilot study, Andy Morley and I found that of the university lecturers we surveyed, 91% said that since starting teaching, they had reduced the amount of text they used on their slides. We interpret this to mean that increased practice leads to increased confidence; the more comfortable you are with your subject, the less material you ‘need’ on the slide. However, it’s still a big leap from there to asserting that instructors routinely use slides “as a crutch”; there are plenty of other reasons they might choose to use slides, something Mr Bowen apparently chooses to overlook.

There are really two issues in play here: taking slides out of the classroom, and making higher education more interactive. They’re kind of all twisted up together, so here are my thoughts about teaching naked, and why student engagement and class size present such a knotty problem in this era of massification and McDonaldization in HE.

1. Large class sizes turn higher education into a broadcast medium

Maybe José Bowen only teaches small classes. If so, he is very fortunate, because small-group teaching is brilliant. It allows instructors to get to know their students and allows students to engage, make mistakes, and ask questions in a relatively low-pressure environment.

But try getting students to do these things surrounded by 300 of their peers — it’s like pulling teeth. Not to mention that you need a decent pair of lungs, or a microphone, to maintain order. On this scale, education is pretty much a broadcast medium, and there’s not much you can do about it except ensure that, when you are talking (which really shouldn’t be all the time), you have appropriate visual aids, since we know these benefit learning.

So no, teaching naked is not necessarily the best thing to do when you have really big classes, as many of us do. It might be appropriate, but then you also need to consider that:

2. Teaching naked is more suitable to some subject areas than others

Some of my colleagues teach slideless, and their lectures are enduringly popular, seemingly undiminished by the absence of visual aids. To take one example, material in social psychology is rarely inherently visual; what’s important is the ability to spin a decent yarn, and I am glad to know and work with people who exemplify this approach.

But when I give lectures (remember, 300 students) on neuroanatomy or the visual system, I show diagrams, because then students can see what I am talking about. I could, of course, describe the brain’s visual pathways in excruciating detail, but students would soon be adrift in a sea of unfamiliar anatomical terminology, and I expect my lectures would be bitterly unpopular. Why add unnecessarily to the lecture’s extraneous cognitive load? Writers everywhere know the answer: show, don’t tell.

Of course, I don’t have to use slides as my visual aids, but they’re a highly visible medium that I know I can use well in large classes, so I use ’em. (Your mileage may vary.) But this then throws up a whole new problem:

3. Students expect that their classes are about information delivery.

Slides have become a big part of this expectation. Yes folks, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t: students have been known to complain when staff don’t use lecture slides, or don’t make them available. There are probably many reasons for this (ease of note-taking, knowing how to spell technical terminology, zoning out and missing something critical, or missing the entire lecture and needing a frame of reference — and no doubt there are plenty more), but I think they all boil down to the importance of possessing information.

Implicit in this delivery model of education is the suggestion that students are passive vessels into which learning is transferred via their attendance at lectures, a situation which may be exacerbated by use of slide-based handouts. The Chronicle notes that:

The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.

Of course, if students are to take a more active role than sitting in lectures, this requires that they have done some reading around the topic. But getting students to do even basic reading prior to class isn’t that straightforward; for one thing, since the introduction of tuition fees, many students now hold down part-time or even full-time jobs to pay their way through university. I have known students choose modules on the basis of what will fit around work, rather than their own academic interests, and I have found out the hard way that even when you say “this prior reading is mandatory for the session”, you either quickly reduce the number of people coming to that class, or end up adapting the session to accommodate those students who have not, despite your advice, done the reading. So here too, ‘teaching naked’, if we take that to mean ‘facilitating student discussions of material they have read outside class, in the absence of computers or other overt delivery methods’, might not work well.

So, should I kick computers out of my lecture theatre?

My honest feeling is that that teaching naked, much as I admire the principle, isn’t always compatible with how big higher education actually functions. We do have small-group teaching, and we try to keep that as interactive as possible, but plenty of our teaching is still lecture-based, and I think it’s a mistake to rejected computers (and slideware) out of hand, no matter how cool it is to diss PowerPoint right now*.

Fundamentally, it’s dogmatic to apply any hardline approach, whether that be ‘no slides’ or ‘slides all the way’. Educators are supposed to be smart — so let’s act like it.

* Actually, it’s been cool for quite a while. Lincoln took some stick about the Gettysburg Address and it all sort of snowballed from there.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Teaching naked in the age of big education

  1. As a music teacher teaching moderate class sizes, I think Bowen has it dead right to get rid of the computers. Far better to be hands on with the instruments, and to deal with any tab/notation by hand. It makes far more sense for the subject matter.

    Re: Powerpoint – same old same old for me. Potentially great software, but crippled by an overloading with presets and lazy functions that encourage the very worst in a userbase which is largely casual, and won’t spend time learning its many capabilities if it insists on constantly doing things for you.

    Make no mistake – Powerpoint doesn’t just offer to wipe your arse, it does the whole damned shit too.

    • finiteattentionspan

      absolutely wouldn’t presume to tell him how to run his classes, and I agree wholeheartedly with you that that’s exactly what they should be doing.

      Where I have a problem is when educators everywhere read about this and go “Oh wow! Let’s all ditch computers! PowerPoint bad!”

      Sure, PowerPoint in the hands of the lazy can lead to some — well, let me be diplomatic, lackadaisical presentations. But the thing is, you don’t have to be a ninja about how it works to be able to use it to tell fantastic, nonlinear stories. You just have to construct the story before you open the package. (Okay, and not put more than a few words per slide. And use graphics decently.) To use it in a non-life-threatening way just takes a bit of thought.

      Slides are what you make ‘em. I’ve just got done listening to Radio 4’s Word of Mouth about PowerPoint, and I’m just furious that they have — very lazily — conflated poor use of software with poor software. Very mixed bag of a programme, and I feel another post coming on …

  2. Do educators go “Oh wow! Let’s all ditch computers! PowerPoint bad!” though? Really?

    I will happily bow to your better judgement, as I don’t know many educators, but I can’t imagine that being the typical response to that piece amongst any group of people capable of reading (and I have to assume educators have got that far!).

    ‘Poor use of software vs Poor software’ requires more discussion, and PowerPoint should be rightly hung, drawn and quartered in that arena, for the reasons stated above. Were it stripped of all that hand-holding, arse-wiping excess then it would be of far more positive use.

    • finiteattentionspan

      Well, the Twitterverse this week has been all aflutter with educators trumpeting Bowen’s decision as, you know, epic. And in fact the blogosphere too. Really I think people are using it as “evidence” that PowerPoint is bad. It’s also been an excuse for the media to dust off their “PowerPoint is bad” clichés (and go to pubs. Man, that Radio 4 programme is bugging me.)

      I grant you that PowerPoint affords all sorts of nonsense — it’s excessively prescriptive, for one — but again, it’s entirely possible to use it well. (I’ve seen it done. And, I like to think/hope, have done so myself.)

      The software is what it is; it was invented for novices and that shows in many people’s use of it. But used properly, ignoring the ways it’s “supposed” to be done, it can be a terrific tool.

      (I am obliged here to point out that really what I mean is that Apple Keynote can look terrific. It leaves PowerPoint in the dust. But functionally, they are similar enough.)

  3. You don’t need to be a ninja to use Powerpoint well!
    It’s simple, ignore 99% of it’s ‘bells and whistles’, ban bullet points, keep the number of words per slide to half a dozen (more slides with less on them), never read your slides, never use clipart, no crappy animations, use good quality images, don’t ever provide ‘handouts’ of your slides provide separate written notes instead!

    • finiteattentionspan

      Couldn’t agree more!

      I tried that last bit one year, though, the written notes. And I received several exam essays that were essentially verbatim copies of the handout (not answering the question). So now I don’t do that, either (I do it for presentations, but not for teaching).

    • finiteattentionspan

      There are arguments there about allowing people to make their own notes about what you say around the slides — perhaps less critical in presentations but potentially useful in class. Either way, many people just seem to spend the whole time leafing back and forth to see if you’re at the end yet …

  4. You may know of these two sites/books, however PresentationZen and Slideology are really useful resources around the use of powerpoint, as is Edward Tufte’s “Cognitive Style of Powerpoint” booklet.

  5. Pingback: Everything is upside-down: turning lectures into homework with problem-based learning « Finite Attention Span

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