Banning Laptops and Questioning PowerPoint

No, today’s post is not a primal scream about technology taking over our lives. Today, I want to explore articles reporting on professors banning laptops from their classrooms and the ubiquity of PowerPoint in teaching, and, yes, even in making military decisions in Afghanistan.

First, the professors. Stories from law school, business school, and undergraduate classes appear again and again about professors telling students to stow away their laptops and take notes the old-fashioned way.

Those professors who have banned laptops from lectures and discussions–no statistics yet capture the magnitude of the professorial rebellion but they are hardly a majority since most universities either issue laptops to every student, or encourage them to use them for course work–cite the machines as “attractive nuisances,” distracting students from the task at hand.

Students being distracted is as old as the earliest classrooms where teachers met groups of students to cover different subjects. The issue then as now, of course, is how teachers teach. Because large-group lectures are the meat-and-potatoes of college pedagogy, classes in amphitheater halls offer students tempting venues for checking sports scores, reading blogs, seeing recent entries on Facebook, and other easily accessed sites rather than watching more bullet-points on the professor’s PowerPoint presentation.

Which is a nice segue to the ubiquity of this software as a way of presenting content–one aspect of teaching–to students and nearly any group of people convened to listen to someone. From church groups, to professors, to sales conferences to the commanding general of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, PowerPoint rules.

Afghanistan? General Stanley McChrystal viewed a slide that was complex. [See below]

“When we understand that slide,” General McChrystal said, “we’ll have won the war.” The pervasiveness of PowerPoint in military briefings and making policy has led to repeated critiques of “being actively hostile to thoughtful decision making.” Even when the U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star generals order that PowerPoint slides be given a day before briefings and limited presentations to 20-minutes, still the profusion of bullet-points and information stunts thinking of even the most attentive officer. Ditto for college and K-12 teaching according to those familiar with the technique and have used it themselves and seen its weaknesses in analyzing problems and doing statistical analysis.

Both in the military and higher education, PowerPoint presentations have become the dominant way to present content to students and decision-makers. An Armed Forces Journal critic entitled his analysis of PowerPoint–“Dumb-Dumb Bullets“–taking the position that the slides diminished analytic thinking and skewed decision-making in harmful ways.

So here’s a pedagogical aid that certainly has many pluses to it in adding color to lectures with videos, photos, audios, and yes, bullet points that can give a huge lift to dry presentations. Yet the trade-offs in getting students and policymakers to think through issues and come to grips with messy problems are substantial, according to critics.

More and more professors banning laptops for distracting students’ attention and the increasing criticism of PowerPoint tell me that the novelty stage of these technologies have worn off. The Gee Whiz stage is over. Now, both the hardware and software can be considered more deliberately, more selectively as a tool in teaching and used when appropriate rather than pitched as a cure-all for inattention.

Historically, teachers from educational to military venues have adapted technological tools to the institutional realities of classroom teaching and military briefings, creating hybrid pedagogies. With laptops and PowerPoint, that tradition continues.



Filed under technology use

6 responses to “Banning Laptops and Questioning PowerPoint

  1. I recently attended the 140 Conference in New York CIty ( On day one I took physical notes. On day two I brought my computer. I found that I took much better notes on day two and was able to attend to other things when presentations were less interesting. I could also do searches and look up things I didn’t understand, which made the experience much more valuable. Professors who ban computers are luddites. If students’ attention wanders, it could be that they are either lost, already know the information, find the professor to be ineffective (i.e. boring) or are working to scaffold their knowledge. The bottom line for me is that the students are the customers. Professors who ban laptops and block sites truly have their heads in the clouds.

  2. I believe it’s a matter of controlling the attention of the participants. Handhelds can’t be stopped easily and students will use them regardless. So I suspect banning laptops is a response to something particular. I teach in a computer lab and find nothing objectionable in the idea of not using display periodically. It’s praiseworthy.

    All technology (movies, music, and their tiny cousins) amplifies the social message of the speaker as well as amplifying the information. Unfortunately, people are not often aware of the social message they are broadcasting. That was General McChrystal’s point.

    Edward Tufte examines the effectiveness of individual communications, but the message is the same. Bad messages are broadcast everywhere.

    I have a feeling that the social implication in the use of technology for static display is that it is information that should not be challenged. Consider a professor outlining an argument in chalk point by point as he lectures. He is modeling note taking behavior for students and his delivery is punctuated with dialog. If he uses display technology, the communication with students may be subtly altered.

    The development of Gap Minder to display 5 dimensions can help untwist over-simplification inherent in school grades so our school’s D is seen in a middle position relative to other high schools.
    This of course brings us to the inevitable multiple viewpoint argument. Whose is to be embraced?

  3. Britt Pumphrey

    The proper use of multimedia in a presentation will enhance the presentation. As will the proper use of technology while watching a presentation.

    But a poor presenter or teacher is not going to be made effective simply by the addition of a Powerpoint. Nor is a disengaged, unmotivated learner going to be made into a highly engaged and excited learner simply by taking away the laptop. Though taking away the Powerpoint from that presenter will definitely lower the annoyance level of the audience. And taking away the laptop from the student will rebuild the crippled ego of the all-knowing professor.

    In my experience, good educators and good students are made even better when technology is thrown in the mix.

  4. When my son graduates next year he will attend some small, liberal arts, undergraduate-oriented college, where he will not be listening to many big lectures. Part of the problem is higher ed’s lecture hall habit. I went to a large, prestigious, Ivy League research institution and had quite enough of that. My son will not be applying to that institution, nor to any like it.

  5. There is also the simple issue of good manners. I have done a number of critical commercial presentations where a handful of the audience who, because they have been engrossed elsewhere on their laptops and not paying attention, then take up all the question time and deny other people the opportunity to participate.

    I did one where most of the audience left the room furious because 2 individuals spent the entire session interrupting when they got bored with whatever was on their screen, and asked a question. They would then immediately go back to playing online until they got bored again and ask another question…needless to say, we lost the business!

  6. Sandeep Sharma

    I agree with Mr Green. His word’luddites’ rather tempted me to post this comment.
    In underdeveloped countries, take for example India, almost 10% of teachers in higher education know how to use the computers or ‘use technology in colleges/universities.’
    Then they oppose it while their heads above the clouds and inside the blackboard.

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