Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Some thoughts on the use of PowerPoint in class - Part I

I have been following a "sans slideware" on-line discussion by Dr. Stephen Kinsella of UL (@stephenkinsella on Twitter) with interest. His choice of teaching tool for the past nine years is the "slide deck" (presumably PowerPoint), and he doesn't want to "want to use this tool in lectures anymore". He is seeking comments and suggestions for alternatives here. He concludes that:

There is a problem with teaching using slideware: it is boring, it does not help us as lecturers, it does not help students learn. Slideware is the wrong tool for the job. We can do better.

Stephen also interestingly places his lecture notes online using Slideshare - for all the world to see. My own lecture notes are only available to authorized students on the College's LCMS (Moodle) - safely tucked away where only my students can see them. Having read Stephen's paper, I thought I'd write down some of my own thoughts on using PowerPoint.

I use PowerPoint for all my lecture notes, and post them in advance of class on Moodle. I also post lots of other items such as links to case-studies, videos, supporting documentation, exercise files, and solution files. As an advocate for the use of technology in the classroom, I try to make as much course related material available on-line as possible. The aim of doing this is to give my students the opportunity to read over the notes before class - with the exception of some of my postgraduate students, almost none do this. Even less print them out and bring them to class, but very few students take notes any more. To me a student should bring a printout of slides to class and add more written notes. Many of my notes are based on chapters in books, and in isolation they are simply a summary of what's in the chapter. Some textbook authors provide slides to accompany the text - these slides are a godsend (cuts down on preparation time) to some lecturers who use them without modification. To me, they are mostly totally inadequate and I always modify them, sometimes almost beyond recognition - which is possibly a breach of copyright rules (I do site sources at all times). Most of my changes are to add more up-to-date information, examples, videos, and graphics (mostly plundered from Google image searches). This is my effort to make my slides more appealing - I am dead set against the text only slides that are so common. This, I'm sure, is as a result of my experience in CBT Systems/SmartForce as a courseware developer where our storyboards had to have a new graphic for almost every sentence! Text only screens of content were not allowed.

A set of slides for one of my classes will take, on average, about 5-10 minutes to read from start to finish at most. Yet, I can talk for an hour in a lecture using the same slides - sometimes I will discuss the contents of a single slide (especially diagrams) for several minutes alone. Quite often I am hurrying near the end of a lecture to finish the content - this mostly happens when I get a lot of feedback and discussion in class (which is great and very enjoyable). As I keep text to a minimum and use a lot of graphics, a student who misses my class will only have a 5-10 minute file to read - and he/she may be wondering how this is translated into an hour long lecture. This probably makes studying for exams very difficult - how do you learn from a set of slides from a lecture that you did not attend? I know what happens - many students simply try to learn off by heart the contents of the slides. I know they do this - because time after time I get, in response to an exam question, a list of bullet points! No analysis, no discussion, no thought, no supporting examples. In this I agree with Stephen Kinsella that "We can do better". His pre-class podcast idea is a good one - but how many students will listen to a podcast and then go to class?

I remember attending a project management class given by my former colleague at NCI, Dr. David Keane, not long after I started in NCI. He used no slides at all in the class - instead he turned it into a discussion where everyone got involved. This worked quite well - though a student missing this class is obviously going to miss out on a great learning experience, as well as having no notes to study. I once attended a course (CIPD Certificate in Training) which was delivered by the excellent Dr. Teresa Williams. She provided printouts of her PowerPoint notes, but never used them once over the ten days of the course! Instead, the (all-day) classes were a series of workshops, problem-solving sessions, analysis of cases, group-work, and student presentations. A fantastic learning experience for me as a student - many of the techniques learned are put to good use in class.

In the good old days when I were a student - of course there were no PowerPoint slides. Some lecturers had the old style film slides for diagrams and photos, but most used the blackboard or overhead projector. One of best lecturers in Trinity that I had, Dr Frank Jeal, mostly used the blackboard with a few film slides in each class. He had the wonderful ability to hold student attention throughout class, while we all hastily wrote down as much notes as we could.

Part II to follow....

(Cartoon above shamefully ripped off from Morten Flate Paulson's book: Online Education and Learning Management Systems - I use this in a class on Technology Enhanced Learning).


  1. Yes, Frank Jeal was the best ever...I met with some fellow students from 25 years ago and we were stilltalking about him

  2. reading that, it seems a few of my past & current lecturers could learn a few things in the art of presentation, despite learning difficulties which specifically state power-points prior to lectures its still an eternal struggle to get them to even put them on-line and a few cases they're the outdated versions and not the one actually delivered