As instructors we can get hooked to certain technologies in our classes. One such technology is PowerPoint. We get hooked using PowerPoint with the belief that this multimedia-supporting tool will bring our lectures to life, making them more interesting and engaging.

Some few years back, I had the opportunity to provide technical support and consultation to a group of faculty at a Midwestern institution.  This assistance was made possible through the US Department of Education’s Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology grant.  As the semester rolled by, the level of satisfaction with technology use to improve teaching and learning among some professors was encouraging. However, with one particular professor the excitement of joining this group of “tech users” was short-lived because of students’ reaction to the repeated use of PowerPoint.

Long story short, this presentation format went on for some time. Then one day, as soon as class began and the presentation was projected on the “giant screen,” one student shouted out in a loud and very clear voice “Ooooh, PowerPoint!  Again!!!”  The whole class erupted in laughter! As you may imagine, the professor was not amused and stood bewildered in front of the class for a few minutes. In addition, the professor had also noticed that class attendances had been dwindling. The self-proclaimed “smart students” knew that the PowerPoint presentation would be posted online and therefore thought there was no need “wasting time” to attend the lectures.

You may have had similar responses and experiences concerning the use of PowerPoint. Well, maybe your students have not shouted out yet but have you ever wondered what students would say if you asked them about your use of PowerPoint?

We continue to live with deep convictions that our presentations convey the “message” and would be easily understood by students.  In an article published in the New York Times, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint,” the writer contends that this may not be the case. Yes, PowerPoint is a good tool, but the article highlights how complex and confusing some presentations can be and how they can easily become the focus of a class. (Sidenote: General McChrystal was shown a slide on the military’s strategy regarding the war in Afghanistan and amid laughter said, “When we understand the slide, we’ll have won the war.”)

Although not intentional, by design PowerPoint rules are likely to promote the simplification of complex issues to bullet points that may lack clarity and deeper understanding. (Remember the six-by-six rule: one thought per line with no more than six words per line and no more than six bullets per slide).  Other mistakes that presenters make are highlighted by this YouTube video titled Life After Death by PowerPoint by Don McMillan.

Of course, as indicated earlier, the use of PowerPoint is not all negative and there is some power in using it.  Instructors can use PowerPoint to provide information, share photos, graphs, charts, and videos as well as humor to illustrate a concept or an idea.  Providing outlines can also guide students learning and encourage note-taking. This may be particularly true when students can keep pace with the presentation, write it down and have much time for explanation.

So there are a number of questions here: When is the use of PowerPoint appropriate in a course? How should it be used so that students do not feel this technology is “taking over” the course? How should it be used to provide students with enough detail that is essential for understanding the topic under discussion?  Do PowerPoint presentations even foster discussions at all?  Or is it just useful for facilitating presentation?

Colleagues what do you think? Please join the discussion.