Updated: Jul 14
Luckily, of that triad, it’s all of the above, which leaves us plenty of room for maneuver. I’ll start with the most important component – us. This is less about suggesting that we are bad workers blaming our tools, and more about recognizing and acknowledging that convention and tradition play a role, along with institutional preferences and orthodoxies. By this, I mean that as pedagogues, we are steeped in millennia of conventions that have remained largely unchallenged and unchanged since the Gutenberg Press made mass circulation of scholarly tomes a possibility. We perpetuate those conventions mostly unthinkingly in that other domain of our professional lives, disciplinary publication: we write textbooks and articles and great big books of words. There is little to dissuade us in these endeavours and everything to propel such practices. Our underlying drivers are textual when it comes to work-related matters to the point that it is almost certainly an unconscious act, to craft our lectures in the same ways we have crafted all dimensions of our profession for a couple of thousand years.
And out of the blue, it seemed, along came the digital visual era, bringing forth and manifesting all kinds of possibilities, especially in the world beyond the academy. ‘The most visual era of human evolution’, we hear. Peter Felten, perhaps on the back of WLT Mitchell, refers us to the idea of a pictorial turn wherein images ‘are not just passive entities that coexist with their human hosts’, but also ‘change the way we think and see and dream’, possessing ‘the power to influence us, to demand things from us, to persuade us, seduce us, or even lead us astray’. But it’s too late: we are fully-formed textual pedagogues, stuck in our ways and forever destined to paint chalkboards in illegible scribble. Of course we’re not. We’re human and we learn and adapt. But we do have what Cathy Adams called in 2006 ‘habits of the mind’ and they are what sometimes keep us on practitioner tram-lines. And it’s digital tramlines to which I will now turn, showing how PowerPoint reinforces those mental habits we are now challenging.
IT'S THE SOFTWARE
Microsoft’s ubiquitous presentation software needs no introduction. It serves us, and virtually every other industry, valiantly, professionalising our lectures and presentations, animating and invigorating our pedagogic performances, if we know how to use it. Since Microsoft introduced PowerPoint in the mid-to-late 1990’s as a tool for professionalising presentations, along with Apple’s Keynote, these platforms have become ubiquitous. PPT is embedded in HE for better or for worse wherever there is electricity, all around the world.
Its unpopularity is legend, giving rise to the infamous epithet of ‘Death by PowerPoint’. Google’s former head of research, Peter Norvig, compared PPT with a loaded AK47 assault rifle because it could harm so many people. His parody of the Gettysburg Address done using PPT is famed. It shouldered some of the blame for the Columbia shuttle disaster. Edward Tufte, Emeritus Yale Professor, famously declared in Wired that ‘power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely’.
For the most part, though, it can be viewed as a form of techno-determinism, critiqued far and wide for advancing linear thought and argument and shutting down imagination. These arguments are well-rehearsed, but few critiques have discussed ways of shifting gears and determining our own pedagogic outcomes. That doesn’t sound very academic to me, suggesting we are stuck in some techno-deterministic paradigm. Whilst it is not at all true that all disciplines and all academics use PowerPoint logocentrically, it is true that we all have the opportunity to consider how we might change those ways, if we think it warranted.
For the most part, the primary barrier to expanding PowerPoint is a combination of multiple factors. One is our ignorance of an intellectual rationale for the use of images. Another is the weight and hegemony of textual convention the profession has carried for centuries. Yet another is the structure of PowerPoint and its tendency to drive us down tramlines where text and bullet-points feature heavily. But there’s also prejudice and power: In essence, proposing imagery as a valid route to communicating complexity and meaning to students is a direct challenge to the dominant paradigm that declares language to be the primary authoritative and legitimate conveyor of meaning. I’m only partly speaking tongue-in-cheek when I say that the idea of using pictures in university teaching is almost heresy for some. The scholarship, the theory and the data affirm the value to students, so it’s perhaps ironic that PowerPoint is full to the rafters with multimedia capacity when we use it mainly for text. The tool is there; we shouldn’t throw out babies and bathwater.
It’s not us, it’s not the software. It’s just about how we use it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Professor Tufte was clear that he was referring to PowerPoint’s default, text-centric setting, when in fact, this platform can communicate so much more than just text. It is a truly versatile and stable means of delivering what we choose to deliver, how we want to. We can embed videos, sound, images, hyperlinks, charts, maps, graphs, shapes, screenshots, objects, equations and more
We already have outstanding kit at our disposal, and we don’t need to learn fancy new platforms. The one we’ve had since the mid 1990’s is fine. It presents us with both chains and wings. We can stick with the chains and keep trotting out reams of text, or we can use it the way it works best, in tune with how our brains work, substantiated by Cambridge University Press authority deriving from half a century of brain science, to deliver multimedia learning at the click of a mouse.
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