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?