The PowerPoint Paradox

By Tariq Mir

What’s the point of PowerPoint? It’s used by over a billion people for all kinds of novel and interesting creative presentations. You might expect that this format is universally adored, but there is a backlash in some areas – especially education. Students are beginning to notice that it is being used as a first aid kit by lecturers to gloss over problems in their own work.

Lecture theatres used to actually be theatres – auditoriums which the lecturer would fill with their voice, and attempt to engage the full attention of the audience. With the advent of technology, the has changed considerably. We now have projectors with automatic screens, laser pointers, loudspeaker systems and finely controlled lighting. Traditionally, theatre and lecturing were seen as one and the same thing.

The best theatre hangs great significance upon the way words are crafted. In our past as a human race, the major method for passing on stories was through the art of storytelling. Our earliest tales were handed down from generation to generation through speech and memory alone. The material was recorded in the experiential lives of people, and their deepest messages moved to shape and structure countless civilisations.

The lecture hall is the place where the story needs to inject life into sterile texts. The race is on and slow coaches will be left behind unless they speed up their analytical thinking processes. Not all responsibility for understanding the lecture rests with the lecturer though the lecture cannot be effective unless students do some background work and are up to date with classes.

We might see the lecturer who lives in the world of PowerPoint as a ghost in the machine. In the lecture hall, lights are often dimmed so a projector can light up the stage, which immediately triggers the reptilian centre of the brain into thinking the sun is setting on the horizon, and so it prepares for sleep: breathing slows down, eyes droop and muscles relax. Alert relaxation is the best receptive state for learning, but when the lights are dimmed, students who are often tired and overworked, take the opportunity to enter a half-awake half-asleep state. Too much audience relaxation creates a disconnect that is all too palpable to a switched on lecturer.

All too often the projectors are the focus of lectures and so there is little motivation for students to engage. Over-use of resources creates a lethargy in the audience, causing faculties to dull and senses to numb. Worse still, the lecturer often ends up reading directly – and robotically – from the slides. Sometimes the slides are not even their own, so they attempt to paraphrase what they think the original author intended.

Snapping out of the over-used PowerPoint black box can be a liberating experience for students. Walking on stage, in a lecture theatre, immediately calls for attention and allows the lecturer to think more freely and, dare I say it, be more creative and responsive to feedback from students.  In addition, it also creates a more fluid atmosphere which allows the focus to be directed to more salient details.

The Harvard Business School uses black-boards and chalk a great deal. Most all of the Ivy League of universities do. Their students from the wider international community ask for such chalk work because it helps them learn. A study done on pharmacy students found the highest grades were achieved by the collaborative use of board work and PowerPoint presentations.

PowerPoint has its uses, but only in balance with other media tools. Lecture presentations should be creative rather than formulaic, and the lecturer takes the responsibility. Education has the potential to unlock creative intelligence which would otherwise be trapped in the darkness of an academic black box. Students need to take the chance to review and reflect upon their learner’s journey as often as possible – it could enrich and invigorate students with a new purpose and place their academic career on a more solid footing.