Last reviewed 14 March 2017
It might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Microsoft PowerPoint is 27 years old. Over this time, it has had a dramatic impact on classrooms throughout the land, particularly since the widespread installation of data projectors, mainly in the last decade. John Walker takes a look at these issues and asks — “… what is the nature of this impact, and are children benefiting?”.
The pupil perspective
I am quite a big fan of PowerPoint, but I have some concerns too. When I observe science lessons, it is rare for me to see one that does not feature a PowerPoint presentation. Thinking about this from the school pupils’ perspective, and factoring in all the other lessons they experience, I wonder how many PowerPoint presentations our children are sitting through each week, or for that matter, each year. I am not suggesting PowerPoint is not an improvement on the sort of teaching that preceded it, but I would venture that there are some questions we should be asking about its predominance and influence in schools.
Convenience or quality?
When PowerPoint is used well, it is an excellent resource in the teacher’s toolkit; an effective medium that permits the teacher to show a variety of instructional content. It can also be used effectively by pupils, of course. However, when it is used badly, it is a poor substitute for imaginative and engaging teaching, acting instead as the mute sidekick of that well-known antihero, the teacher who talks too much. We used to have “Chalk ‘n’ Talk”; now we have “Death by PowerPoint”. This latter situation is not progress, but the problem is, it might appear to be. Lesson material in the PowerPoint form can be stored, easily amended, copied and accessed rapidly from networks. Convenient, yes, but not necessarily what is best for creating consistently high-quality education. Nor, I would argue, is the corporate branding and standardised formatting I routinely witness in the presentations I see. Why is it necessary to promote the school brand to pupils already attending the school? Why should lessons have to be constrained and formularised by something that ought to enhance and liberate?
PowerPoint replacing schemes of work
I have been in some schools where science departments have taken PowerPoint adoption to new heights. They have eschewed a conventional scheme of work in favour of PowerPoint presentations. Instead of a document that details possible learning activities, resources, health and safety precautions and the like, this information is written on the notes section of PowerPoint slides, while the slides contain the content that pupils see in lessons. This sounds like it might be a good idea, but there are surely some serious questions to be asked. One is about the amount and quality of the guidance for the teacher, but, perhaps more significantly, this approach simply increases the teacher’s dependence on PowerPoint by putting a presentation tool at the very heart of the teaching process. In the hands of less experienced teachers, it is a recipe that doesn’t bode well. Its prime advantage, if it could be called that, is that a teacher can roll up knowing that he or she has something to fall back on, but if this diminishes the function of a teacher’s thinking about the lesson in advance, it is hardly an advantage. Of course, this somewhat pessimistic perspective is addressing the symptoms of an underlying problem, not the cause. Ultimately, teachers’ time is so stretched that the PowerPoint “fix” is one that makes sense when the alternatives are perhaps no better. So what can be done?
PowerPoint is not going to go away any time soon and getting rid of it is not what I would countenance anyway. Instead, improvement has to come from using it better — and that might mean using it less often. I now advise my trainee teachers to deliberately plan some lessons in which they do not turn the data projector on. Not only does this give pupils a bit of a break and potentially some variety, it also gives the trainee confidence that they do not in fact need technology to be a great teacher.
When using PowerPoint, there are some basic principles that need to be heeded. For one, we need to recognise its strengths and its weaknesses, considering how well it serves the purpose of supporting the learning we are aiming for students to achieve. It is the weaknesses in particular that need to be acknowledged. One is that the PowerPoint format forces detail to be abbreviated, and this can have consequences in terms of how effectively information is conveyed. If we need students to appreciate finer points or nuanced detail, then a PowerPoint slide might not be the solution. Bulleted lists and the like give what has been referred to as a “faux-analytical” appearance(1), giving an impression of clarity when in fact the thinking behind the list is muddled. A further weakness is in PowerPoint’s predominantly sequential mode of operation; great for a sales pitch, but not always appropriate for learning.
In closing, the message needs to be that PowerPoint should be improving education. It can only do that if teachers are thinking clearly about not just the message, but the medium too.
(1)Seminar.net — International Journal of Media, Technology and Lifelong Learning. Vol. 2 — Issue 1 — 2006.