In 2002, after most of the initial kinks had been worked out of the Vertical Campus, I had the opportunity to teach a large lecture class (MSC 1003–the music appreciation course, a.k.a. Music in Civilization) using all the smart technology available.
I decided to try PowerPoint (known by its .ppt file extension). I slogged through the program, determined to make slides for three lectures. I compiled some nice illustrations of sound waves and musical instruments, discovered pleasant fonts and colors, added some zippy effects, and spent a lot of time trying out the various bells and whistles. In the end, I found the product ossifying. Something about the slides made them impossible to “riff off of,” as musicians might say. I was disappointed in the software, but figured, “It must be me,” since I was age 50, and this was a new technology that demanded a more malleable brain and a youthful receptiveness to the “new media” I suppose I had lost.
Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to see two, much younger colleagues teach on straightforward music-historical topics using PowerPoint. The first instructor presented a mess of slides, filled with typos and formatting inconsistencies, quite an unstructured piece of work that was hard for me to follow. The second instructor was worse. Besides using a historically inappropriate illustration (a saccharine, late 19th-century rendering of Martin Luther), the second colleague provided too much information. Each of the slides comprised long lists of seven or eight bullet points with a mass of detail. Furthermore, he was incapable of reading the muddle of facts. The student seated next to me was furiously copying the useless text (e.g., “Luther married a nun, Katherine von Bora when he was 42 and she was 26”–remember, this is a music class). My other experiences viewing ppt presentations have not been much better than these.
Hmm. At that point I knew something was wrong. I knew it wasn’t me.
At the end of last semester, I came upon John Medina‘s book Brain Rules. In it he discusses ways of keeping your brain operating at maximum efficiency. In the online chapter on “Vision” (his Rule #10), he states the following:
Toss your PowerPoint presentations. It’s text-based (nearly 40 words per slide), with six hierarchical levels of chapters and subheads—all words. Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images. Burn your current PowerPoint presentations and make new ones.
The online film for Rule #10 does make reference to the business applications of pictures and points up the potential failure of wordy ppt slides. This is not to say, of course, that illustrations and graphs shouldn’t be used. On the contrary, Medina makes it clear that the use of pictures increases our understanding and reinforces our memory. Therefore ppt pictures should be primary, superseding any verbal information on the slides.
My own feelings about ppt include the lack spontaneity it engenders. The instructor can’t very well follow the flow, the lead of the class, since the slides and their order have to be determined beforehand. To my mind, there’s something substantially different between underlining or circling a handwritten word with a marker and highlighting a term with a mouse or making the words flash. The intimate contact with the class that an instructor tries to achieve (especially in a large class) is rendered cold and distant when mediated by ppt technology. I think it’s much more useful, in a classroom situation, to write out words or sketch out graphs and symbols by hand, with the dynamism of a high school geometry teacher rather than rely on last night’s (or last year’s) bright idea.
I suppose I have three main problems with ppt: 1) it’s sometimes (often?) sloppily done; 2) it’s too frequently wordy; and 3) its use often further separates the instructor from the students.
So I ask you, is there a proper use for ppt? In my opinion, pfft!