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PowerPointless 

Relying too much on clever technologies is making us all dimmer by the day

After 45 years in the classroom, you do learn a thing or two — sometimes too late. I refer to allowing computers in the classroom and the use of PowerPoint; I should have banned both years ago.

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First, about the computer in the classroom: Students often ask for permission to record in-class notes on their laptops. I always cautioned against "surfing" but would almost always give permission. I did urge them to accept that notes from lectures would always be fragmentary; I recommended that they later translate these fragments into complete sentences. If they can do this, they'd know that they got it. And if they can't? After the next class, I advised they should ask me to explain. Good advice, seldom followed. I did try to monitor the use of computers, but I most always failed. Surfing seems to be the clear winner once you allow a beachhead.

Computers are bad for note taking, worse for paying attention, and, for the most part, out of control in the academic world. So it's best just to banish them from the classroom, period.

Moving on to the more complicated matter: PowerPoint. From business schools to the military to boardrooms to college classrooms, PowerPoint is ubiquitous. To me, it's nothing more than a form of institutionalized thumb-sucking.

The questions we should be asking are these: Does PowerPoint promote informed analysis and understanding, or is it high-tech overkill? Based on its wide use, I have to think that the answers would be overwhelmingly and resoundingly "Yes, it does" and "No, it isn't."

To the contrary, the correct answers are "No, it doesn't" and "Yes, it is." I no longer allow students to use PowerPoint in any class presentation.

Instead, students should show their work on the whiteboard, or better yet, just do it the old-fashioned way — make an argument, present analysis, cite references, provide illustrations and try to always to provoke thinking. The best evidence of success — and learning — is the discussion such a basic presentation triggers.

Tossing out PowerPoint? In today's tech-dominated world? Heresy! I can hear shouts of outrage coming from the many schools that actually require that PowerPoint be used in all applications and presentations.

In 2007, the University of Chicago School of Business, started, and I quote, "requiring prospective students to submit four pages of PowerPoint-like slides with their applications." The associate dean said that PowerPoint "might attract the kind of cleverness that can really pay off in business."

That word "cleverness" gets me. She's not talking about an exchange of ideas, discussion, argument, analysis or even clarity — just cleverness. (Microsoft software has always been long on complexity and short on accessibility, requiring cleverness above all else.)

But critics are now rallying. This is from an article posted on the Harvard Business School website about a PowerPoint presentation: "That was dreadful. Not only was I bored, everyone else was bored, too. Disengaged." This writer concluded that "a single factor that makes the biggest difference between a great meeting and a poor one: PowerPoint. The best meetings don't go near it." He continues: "All PowerPoint presentations inevitably end up as monologues. They focus on answers, and everyone faces the screen. But meetings should be conversations. They should focus on questions, not answers, and people should face each other."

A number of senior Army officers also have bailed. One laments, rhetorically: "Have you fallen in love with your bulletized slides, nifty transitions and pretty charts in PowerPoint?" If you have, well then, in the words of Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the former Joint Forces Commander, the problem, put simply, [is that] "PowerPoint makes us stupid." And then there was Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who, following another tedious PowerPoint presentation, said, "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

Edward Tufte, in his case study about the Columbia space shuttle disaster, also tore into PowerPoint "for its dampening effect on clear expressions and thought." William Langewiesche, writing for The Atlantic, addresses just this point. One meeting was especially critical, he writes: "The question to be addressed was how bad is the damage and what could be done to get the crew back safely. The engineers needed to project a photograph of the damaged wing onto the screen, but, tragically, that was not to be. Instead they were required [by mission control] to project a typically crude PowerPoint summary from which they attempted to project a nuanced position." Alas, PowerPoint is all about being clever, and not able to communicate nuance.

We all seek to encourage students to think on their feet, to be informed, to frame an argument, to do analysis, to have a discussion. Yet to have even a chance of pulling this off, we must first send our brightly colored, clever straitjacket to the sidelines.♦

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