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.