Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Power Point and the 'Cost' of Learning

Findings from a study of student engagement in the classroom, contained in an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education about the efforts of one administrator to reduce the dependence on Power Point, suggest that Power Point is one of the worst ways to teach. This will surprise few professors - many of whom feel obligated to use Power Point as universities have gleefully invested in 'smart' classrooms and created the expectation among students that all they need in terms of class notes and study materials will be provided for them - but who don't necessarily like it.

I know I felt obligated to use Power Point when I first got to OSU and was assigned to teach a large lecture of international economics. With very little support available, I had to rely in electronic crutches and there is an ever increasing expectation among students that they will have notes provided for them. And because OSU has designed these smart classrooms in such a way that most often the screen upon which Power Point slides are projected covers the entire board, it is very hard to do a lecture that is not entirely in Power Point. Now I am sure that some subjects lend themselves very well to Power Point, but I don't think economics is one of them, what with all of the equations and graphs. I settled on a hybrid style for international economics, where I show Power Point slides, but also derive all equations and graphs on the board.

All of my other classes are strictly 'old school': it is me, the blackboard and a piece of chalk. Though this technique lacks a certain pizazz that I suppose today's kids are used to given all of the electronic entertainment they have grown up with, it also demands that students come to class, pay close attention and go through the act of taking notes. It is my opinion that the very act of writing down material that students are expected to retain is an essential part of learning it. Teaching this way is hard, and after 110 minutes of lecturing and writing on the board, I am exhausted. But that is a good feeling - economics is a hard subject and mastering it is really hard work. Students seem to regard work and struggle in a class as a failing of the professor - surely there is a way that it could be made easier the thinking goes. But the truth of learning is that it is hard and all of these technological aids can't alter that fundamental fact.

What I have found is that ex ante students will often express a preference for Power Point (not all though, students who tend to be engaged prefer old school lectures), but ex post almost all prefer the old school style because I think they realize that more learning has occurred. There is some endogeneity involved - as I don't like teaching with Power Point and find it a bit unnatural, I am sure I am not very good at it (although I have gotten much better over the last few years).

But what I dislike is higher educations fantastic embrace of technology in the classroom (in Colorado, I was even offered a free Palm Pilot as an incentive to use all of the classroom gizmos). This creates the expectation among students that lectures are passive, available on-line if the don't feel like attending, and that learning should be easy. It is a consumer-driven approach to higher education. But without external standards the internal incentives of the university are clear: offer your customers a degree with a high grade point and little effort. But a university has to maintain the standard of quality education, even when students would prefer the easier way out. In other words, technology is promoted, in essence, as a way to reduce the cost of an education in terms of 'boring' chalk and blackboard lectures and hard work, and students buy into this. But do we really want to lower these costs? Aren't they essential to the process of learning?

I should note that I think Power Point can be a tremendous supplement to a class and I wish OSU's smart classrooms would have the screen to the side so I could use it that way. When I teach development economics I use Power Point to show pictures, data tables and graphs and this is a wonderful thing. Luckily, last term, I had a classroom that allowed me to have at least some blackboard while I projected these slides on the screen. I also think Power Point is great for professional presentations, talks and the like. But as a pedagogical tool, I think it falls short (at least in subjects like economics).

But this is a teacher's perspective, anyone out there ready to defend Power Point?


Mary Sue said...

I'm trained as a teacher, and I love PowerPoint.

However, I love using it as a lecture aid, not as a handy place to post my lecture notes. I throw up the main points on bullets, and then talk about why they're the main points.

No more than three bullets per page in an appropriately large font so everyone can see it, even in the back. Slides with properly contrasting colors for people with vision problems (light blue text on dark blue background does not count). Break up the text with pictures (NOT CLIP ART). Engage the students with questions instead of just throwing the information out there and praying it sticks.

PowerPoint is a tool that can be mastered, but a lot of people in education and in business do not take the time to learn how to use it effectively.

Dave Porter said...

Your concerns about PowerPoint are minor worries compared to the impact that the digital revolution will have on higher education over the next few decades. Most of higher education has developed an unsustainable cost structure. Neither most students nor the public can afford it any more. Free online universities are starting. The Obama administration is going to fund development of free online high school and community college courses (25-30 new courses per year, $50 million per year, see here). Change is happening, with more to come.

The era of most college professors lecturing live to students is going to end soon (except for the few stars making the video/online lectures).

Patrick Emerson said...

From my experience, I think your faith in on-line education is misplaced. I don't think (as my post reflects) there is a substitute for real classroom based learning. There are some students who can be very successful learning through distance ed. but I think they are a small minority.

Dave Porter said...

From the conclusion section of the recent (2009) US Department of Education’s report “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies:” (see here)
“In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. Even when used by itself, online learning appears to offer a modest advantage over conventional classroom instruction.”
Let’s not be guided by faith, but investigation. What works, works.

Patrick Emerson said...

Most of this research is from small scale, controlled experiments that study the dissemination of a very specific set of facts/knowledge in a short-time period. It does not say much at all about the long-term outcomes of students who are taught entirely via distance ed. versus those taught in a traditional manner. That research has yet to be done.

My claim is not based on faith but on a small sample. My personal experience with distance ed. is that it is a poor substitute for in class learning for the majority of the students to whom that material does not come naturally. It gets a lot better when there is an opportunity for continuous feedback, but then you are getting close to simply replicating the traditional classroom anyway.

Dann Cutter said...

There has been needed change in the pedagogical methods for as long as I can remember. Power point or not, the damage is in the act of 'lecturing' itself. Countless studies have shown the significantly increased success of engaging students in an interactive learning environment, requiring not just repetition but on hand application and manipulation of ideas during class instruction. I would encourage everyone to look at the work by OSU's Corinne Manogue in the physics department dealing with exactly this type of enhanced interaction - used in the second year physics coursework here.

I took Econ 201 online, and absolutely loved the class - mainly because, while the instructor (a utterly incomprehensible non-native english speaker who clearly had bribed someone to take the TOEFL for him) was horrid, the material was on an interactive quiz based website, which allowed countless hours of 'playing' scenarios on interactive graphs - by the end I was well familiar with the concept sin a way that copying down the graph and listening to an explanation never would have.

Yet, within six lectures of Econ 311, lecture based by an instructor who I think had never used a computer in his life, I found that the material I enjoyed so much could be delivered in such a way as to make it dry and lifeless.

Powerpoint is but a tool of a further failure in the pedagogical system. While it is hard to do with 200 what is easy with 20, until instructors embrace newer teaching methods, they will have to accept that students will choose the methods which they have adapted to best learning from the misery to which they are sometimes inflicted (and for those who don't know what I mean, a standing room only Econ course in a 1940s era classroom using slides provided by the text company while the instructor essentially 'reads' the screen).

For those of you who are the future of the Econ department at OSU, the University changes like molasses, but it CAN change - if those who desire stay long enough.

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