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Technology Corrupts Teaching: Students Sentenced to PowerPoint Tedium

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Projecting Fluff, by Shanthi Manian, points out another flaw in this ever-continuing push for more technology in schools. Manian focuses on how PowerPoint presentations are becoming commonplace in classrooms around the country. Even elementary teachers are giving PP presentations. However, Manian writes that there are those who question what PP is doing to teaching, to presentations, and to our cognitive processes as a whole:

    “It’s only a little better than teaching children to smoke cigarettes,” said analytical design expert Edward Tufte about PowerPoint in the classroom. Tufte says PowerPoint’s low-resolution and bullet-point style make the presentation of complex concepts impossible. Lecturers try to compensate for the thin, oversimplified content with animations and tricks, a phenomenon labeled “PowerPointlessness” by Jamie McKenzie, the editor of From Now On: The Education Technology Journal.
    But Tufte and McKenzie say that bright colors, music, and animations fail to disguise what Tufte calls a “poverty of content.”
    “A vicious circle results,” Tufte said. “Thin content leads to boring presentations. To make them unboring, PowerPoint Phluff [extraneous elements such as animations] is added, damaging the content, making the presentations even more boring.”
    But Tufte and McKenzie’s criticisms of PowerPoint are not restricted to its many extraneous features, however. Tufte says the limitations of the software are so severe that it can never be used in a positive way. In his essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, he reviews the flaws that inherently doom PowerPoint users to failure.
    Vague, broad ideas forced into artificial hierarchies characterize virtually all PowerPoint presentations, according to Tufte. Because slides projected onto a wall or screen are of such low resolution, he argues, each slide can only hold a few words. It is simply an issue of space: Complex statements do not fit on a PowerPoint slide.
    The lack of space also forces the viewer to see data or graphs in a sequence, rather than all at once. It is much easier to analyze two graphs drawn side-by-side on a blackboard than two graphs that can only be viewed one at a time, Tufte says. For this reason PowerPoint does not effectively communicate important information.
    Moreover, the bullet style of PowerPoint forces complex ideas into short “catch phrases,” Tufte says. And bulleted lists can imply causality where it does not exist. When three items are in a list, the relationship between those three items is unclear – does one cause another? Do they happen simultaneously? “Bullet outlines might be useful in presentations now and then, but sentences with subjects and verbs are usually better,” Tufte wrote in his essay.
    McKenzie adds that PowerPoint encourages a linear progression of ideas, which denies students the challenge of reasoning. “It’s the difference between pedagogy, when the professor has all the answers and the students ask all the questions, and androgogy-that’s a fancy word for adult education,” he said.

We are being digitized, being turned into thoughtless machines that question nothing. This emphasis on technology is forcing us to conform to the computer way of thinking, via a sequence of zeros and ones.

Manian also found some teachers who think PP is good for teaching:

    Many professors at Georgetown disagree. “It was the way I’d always dreamed of teaching history, to make history come alive,” said Horvath-Peterson, almost glowing as she remembered her first experience with PowerPoint three years ago.

Yah, I always dreamed of digitizing myself, as well. I really want to be turned uploaded onto a computer disk. Or maybe the Lawnmower Man.

Other professors who use PP mention out the “positives” in the article: it keeps students more interested (my ass it does), it’s a great way to bring maps and charts into the classroom (yah, they never found their way into classrooms before), “It’s an alternative to asking the class to jump up and stretch” (yes, let’s keep those students lifeless and pinned in their seats–motion is so counterproductive to learning), “You can use sound with a curve, and it’s a signal to students that something’s going on” (audience manipulation? subliminal messaging? PP has it all. All we need is the cliched record scratch to sound off and warn students every time the professors are in indoctrination mode in their “teaching”), and “I don’t get chalk dust all over my hands” (Wussy!). You can see that another step has been taken in achieving the inevitable futuristic mode of teaching that science fiction writers prophesied decades ago: plug students in, or give them knowledge pills. Interaction is apparently not the way to learn. Students must sit down and plug in for some PowerPoint input. Score: indoctrination–too much to stomach, critical thinking–0.

There is a bigger motive. It’s money–for MicroSquish, Compaq, Dell, IBM, etc. Administrators, teachers and politicians are pressured into conforming and preaching about technology this and technology that. Few seem to question them. At my school, it’s more and more money for technology and less and less money for books. I agree that the internet can be useful, and it’s nice to have word processors so students can type things. But as a means of conveying a lesson, I don’t think PowerPoint presentations are any more effective in getting students to learn.

Some bastard put Edward Tufte’s essay (mentioned in the first excerpt above) in PowerPoint form. Digitization corrupts all.

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