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Point/Counterpoint: PowerPoint

There has long been a debate in higher education as to the role of Powerpoint presentations. Do they streamline information and present it in a clear fashion, or do they distract from a teacher’s lecturing? Are they tools to be cherished, or annoyances that come in the way of learning?

Well, we here at Onward State take that debate to heart. John Tecce and Devon Edwards took sides arguing for and against the ubiquitous classroom mechanism. For John, they’re a distraction, and for Devon, they’re a lifesaver. See how their arguments stack up in 5 different categories.

Frequency of use
John: This week I have seen approximately 272 PowerPoint slides, including a whopping 70 and 83 in two classes, respectively. One of my classes featured 53 slides in a 55 minute class. Outlining your lecture is one thing, but that’s overkill. I’ve found that a lower number of slides comprising a lecture’s bare essentials is easier to follow and more efficient to study.

Devon: In my first couple years at Penn State, I skipped a lot of classes. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s a fact. And I’m hardly an outlier. It’s not a cliché to say that half the class only shows up to take tests–it’s the truth. And you know what? Whenever I found a teacher who outlined pretty much everything we needed to know on Powerpoints, then threw the slides up on ANGEL, I breathed a sigh of relief, because I could usually go through an entire semester in a couple hours. I got a B+ in one class freshman year that I attended maybe a half-dozen times. Thanks, Powerpoint!

Professor reliance
John: Think how many times you’ve heard a professor mention that “the slides are posted on ANGEL” as he or she flies through a lecture. Now, I think students should be responsible for filling in the gaps of lectures by reading the textbook and reviewing the notes, but PowerPoint is supposed to complement the lecture, not be the lecture itself. Nothing is more frustrating than scheduling a class and seeing “Just reads the PowerPoints” repeated ten times on their page. If I wanted to hear slides read to me, I’d ask Steve Jones to read them as though he’s calling a football game. At least that would be interesting.

Devon: When a teacher doesn’t go through the effort of writing out slides, I’ve found that class is even less structured. Either you have to wait for them to write out lengthy statements on the board, or it’s a class in which note-taking isn’t really that important. I have one class where a teacher uses slides, but they’re for an overhead projector, and that’s even worse–the best part of a Powerpoint is getting to look at the slides afterwards, so you avoid writing everything down and missing the important details of his lecture. That is what a world without Powerpoint looks like. And now that I go to class, I’m still glad to see heavy Powerpoint usage. Teachers who explain everything mean I only have to skim through the readings.

Quality of presentations
John: This is where I vary about the PowerPoint argument, because some professors are able to use PowerPoint very effectively. However, the ones who don’t are doing a disservice to their students. Some professors place multiple lengthy definitions (and sometimes even paragraphs) on one slide, and others simply give a lecture that adds nothing to the text on the slides. What good is a PowerPoint slide filled with text? Hell, if I took anything from CAS 100C (shoutout to Rachel Johnson, who does use PowerPoint properly), it was that people get lost when slides try to include too much information.

Devon: Sure, some teachers don’t use Powerpoint effectively–they’ll either read off the slides or not even address them. But for the vast majority, at least in my experience, the slides add to the experience by outlining the main points of the lecture. And even when they do have “too much information,” I can actually pay attention to what the teacher is saying, and how they augment the words on the screen with examples. The best part of Powerpoints comes from their permanence–you can actually soak up the lessons instead of vigorously copying everything down and barely listening to your professors.

Value of class
John: It is no coincidence that the classes that I take the most out of are the classes where the professor expands on the words on the big screen. Those lectures usually provide insight and information that we won’t find in the notes. I don’t consider time spent in a class listening to a professor read me words I can read myself as time well spent. In this regard, I think PowerPoint hurts the learning environment by discouraging interaction and discussion.

Devon: Of course you’re going to get more out of smaller, discussion-oriented classes. But if this is devolving into an argument about class structure, I’m not sure there’s a right answer. At a school like Penn State, there are as many classes with 400 people in them as there are classes with 20 students, so you’re never going to totally avoid those classes where you get lectured at for two and a half hours a week. But some of them are among the most rewarding classes you’ll ever take, and it really won’t matter whether or not the professor used Powerpoint. What difference does it make if the life lessons are written ahead of time and projected onto a screen?

Closing Arguments
John: The bottom line is that PowerPoint is crushing my will to learn. I dread classes where I know all I will do is sit there and hear a professor read information off of slides for 55 or 75 minutes. Since when is that learning? Learning is discussing, debating, arguing, strategizing, finding solutions to problems, acknowledging different points of view, and, ultimately, discovering. Learning isn’t found on slide projected on a wall. It’s found in speaking, listening, and thinking. The professors on this campus have so much experience and so much to offer us, but that gets lost in a sea of PowerPoint slides.

Devon: I hate to break it to you, but there’s not much room for a classroom discussion when you’re in a packed auditorium with more people than were in the graduating class of your high school. If that was what you were really looking for, then you came to the wrong school. There might be some liberal arts college where you’ll have 15 classmates in your intro classes, but that’s not the case at Penn State. Yes, I too prefer my smaller, 400-level classes that actually grade you on “class participation,” but even some of those teachers use Powerpoint presentations to augment the experience. Learning might not be “slides projected on a wall,” but it is found in teachers sharing their experiences with their students, and using every possible piece of technology to simplify that interchange of ideas. Imagine your worst class. Now imagine it without Powerpoint. It’s not a better class, because your teacher sucks in every medium imaginable.

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