Our newest pedagogical crutch
Let’s face it: education has paid a hefty toll since it became a money- and research-driven institution. Frequently the best researchers are the worst teachers—which pits the university’s and its students’ interests against one another. If profanity is “a linguistic crutch for the typically inarticulate motherf*cker,” then slides are the newest pedagogical crutch for the typically ineffective educator.
As technology has pushed forward, it has become faster, more efficient, and more pervasive. It’s everywhere; it’s the cool thing to have, so—clearly—every classroom in the country needs to have it, especially in universities. We’ve invested millions in wiring up projectors, high-tech A/V systems, and campus-wide Internet access—so, clearly, we need to use it.
It’s like handing new toys to a bunch of kindergarteners. They’ll find a way to use them and abuse them, even if it’s not practical. Technology in the classroom should be used as a tool, not a toy.
The seduction of slides
There are many academic stances on the purpose and efficacy of presentations. I once had a professor whose research said that slides are most effective with a full sentence as the title, and little more than pictures, arrows, and lone words as the content. Honestly, that is the most idiotic template of which I’ve ever heard. The audience would get lost in the title, and then be perplexed by the content.
This professor was, frankly, a pompous idiot. He clearly believed that he and his new presentation style were the hottest thing since sliced bread. After claiming he’d studied the best presenters in the world, I asked if he had ever attended or watched one of Steve Jobs’ keynotes. “No,” he replied. Bollocks. Until you’ve watched Steve, you haven’t seen the best.
It takes hours, days, and even weeks to make a fantastic presentation. The past two summers, I’ve had to give a fifteen-minute presentation: 10 minutes of material, and 5 for Q&A. Those 10 minutes of slides took me around two full days of work. Most people don’t give presentations the effort they deserve, because they don’t understand what presentations are.
They’re stories. They must be colorful and engaging. You want your audience to remember what you say. You, the presenter, are the focus. Slides are for support—they can hold graphics and summaries. They can help keep the audience abreast of what you’re saying.
Slides should annotate your speech, not vice versa.
Nine times out of ten, professors use slides as a crutch; they fail to understand this basic premise. I think I understand why. In the same way the Internet allows employees to be more autonomous, working from home and around the world, pre-made slides allow professors to work from their office instead of the classroom.
Perhaps professors are afraid of making mistakes in the classroom, and feel that slides are a way to perfect the material prior to teaching it. It’s also possible that they’re lazy, and they don’t want to write on the chalkboard. You can make a set of slides once, and use them for years to come. More importantly and aggravatingly, they give you something to read verbatim to your students.
As I posit above, presentations should be simple, complementary, and not distracting. Unfortunately, most professors see slides as screen real estae that must be used. They create slides that more closely resemble word and symbol soups instead of presentation aids.
When a professor dims the lights and turns on the projector, I find myself immediately exhausted. I know what’s coming: another set of slides so busy I can’t read all of them, let alone take notes. “That’s ok, the professor can email the slides to all the students,” which only sounds good. In practice, it means that I lose my ability to personalize the material—I get the professors words, not my own.
Furthermore, slides are fixed. If the professor makes a mistake, it’s set in stone. Students don’t challenge slides because they’re effectively unalterable. This discourages open discussion between students and professors. Even if I incorrectly dispute a professor’s solution, I still learn from it. Slides discourage that, because I need to be 100% certain that a slide is wrong before challenging it; and even then, there’s no guarantee the professor will fix it. Students are never 100% certain about new material, so nobody ever pipes up.
So, we’ve spent millions of dollars to slowly extinguish the last organic pieces of higher education. It makes it easier for professors, so they can do more research, get bigger grants, and say “look at what technology can do.” But nobody ever looks closely to see what it has really done.
I, for one, am not a fan. Call me old-fashioned if you wish.
Slate versus software
I may sound like a broken record, but I think the tried-and-true method of chalk on a blackboard holds several advantages over presentations; some advantages are innate to the medium, and others from how each is used.
The chief frustration with blackboards and whiteboards is their biggest advantage: they’re slow. It takes time to write words and symbols by hand. This, of course, gives students more time to read and comprehend what’s written. It also forces the professor to be more cognizant of what he’s saying, and to better engage the students—particularly if errors are made; nobody’s perfect.
The chalkboard gives the professor a large creative space. If a student asks a question, he can more readily diagram an answer. It shows that the professor has an active knowledge of the material, and isn’t simply regurgitating slides that students could read on their own time. It shows that the professors care about the material.
I simply cannot bring myself to care about a course when it’s blatantly obvious the professor doesn’t care either. Slides say “I’m lazy, and don’t care.” Putting elbow grease into the chalkboard and open discussion says “this material is interesting to me, and I’m here to share that interest and with you.”
This is the newest pedagogical crutch on which our educators are beginning to rely. Just throw together some dense, incomprehensible slides so you never have to engage yourself or your students again. Even better, you can blast through slides faster than you can write, so we can cover more material and never slow down to help students understand it.
We shouldn’t abandon technology altogether. We just need to figure out how to use it as a tool for enhancing material, instead of making it an impersonal crutch that supplants true interaction.
We wonder why America is falling behind in fields like engineering. Our universities need to get a clue, and adjust how they hire researchers and educators.
What’s the point in fantastic reasearch now, if we fail to impart the desire and knowledge to continue it?