Teaching on the Go Seminar, Part Deux

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Last week we talked about delivering presentations in a way that made the lecturer relevant again, by combining slides, handouts, and recordings of the lectures, and distributing them online via a combination of tools like www.wordpress.com and www.slideshare.net.

Following the presentation, Ellen gave me the notes of the conversation, which she summarised as

  • Some people feel they're less effective using PowerPoint than not.
  • Some people feel that students have too much information accessible to them - podcasts, pdf files, notes, slides, blogs, etc - and they don't have time to absorb everything.

In light of these comments, this week let's get a little meta with a discussion of why one would want to actually spend time doing this: isn't it the case that students spend too much time flitting between the elements of the lecture---the handouts, slides, and recordings, instead of spending time synthesizing the material effectively?

Taking the second point first, the argument that students face too much information is nicely summarized in the theory of cognitive overload.

If students faced this problem (essentially, it's a processing issue), then they would walk into a library and explode. The real issue is the problem of continuous partial attention. The student is bombarded with different signals, and they have to choose which signal to pay attention to.

My argument is students face this problem with every subject they study. Only in recent years have the number of possible information channels grown to the point that there exists a tradeoff between different sources of informational input for the average student.

The task of the lecturer, in my opinion, is to first create these channels of information for the student (lectures, podcasts, lecture notes, handouts, slides, exercises, applets, in class demonstrations, etc), and second to sift through these channels, using the lecture format to give it all a shape or context for the students.

The students do the learning. All you do, as the lecturer, is make it possible for them to navigate through these diverse channels. This is how you make yourself, as lecturer, useful again: one adds value through the creation of context.

Coming to the first point: some people feel they're less effective using PowerPoint than not.

PowerPoint in my opinion, (and those of others: see here, here, and here) is just a crutch, when used inappropriately. It can't take the place of the lecturer, and it can't provide the rich, subtle detail of a textbook, professional article, or technical note. PowerPoint can show visuals very well, if the visuals are large enough (in terms of pixels, etc). PowerPoint can keep the class on track and focused on the points the lecturer is attempting to make, and PowerPoint can contain presenters' notes, slides, and links, all in one file. Very useful. If you know how to use it effectively.

When interviewed about PowerPoint's 20 year anniversary, the creators of the program had this to say about their work:

Mr. Gaskins reminds his questioner that a PowerPoint presentation was never supposed to be the entire proposal, just a quick summary of something longer and better thought out. He cites as an example his original business plan for the program: 53 densely argued pages long. The dozen or so slides that accompanied it were but the highlights.

Since then, he complains, "a lot of people in business have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don't like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work."

Summaries without the detail, without the backup. That's the main problem with PowerPoint, and the problem is structural. Our job as lecturers is to avoid the curse of knowledge I discussed in the first lecture, and try to provide the students with the broad strokes and the rich detail in selected parts of the subjects we teach. So let's not let PowerPoint stop us from doing that. Once we do, and we are relevant to them again, the students will come back to listen to what we have to say.

Here's what I'd like to talk about in the next seminar:

  • Is there a way to distribute one's notes at all and still manage modern students' expectations regarding content delivery?
  • Is anyone willing to lecture one full semester without PowerPoint, just to see what would happen?

So, because I think I might try this next semester, I won't be using any PowerPoint decks in the seminar, either.

See you all Wednesday at 12.30 in MC 2-005.

Here's the audio from the seminar itself. I had fun, and learned a lot. Not a bad way to spend your lunch time!