Thursday, February 17, 2005

Resist the Slide

Hi, I'm Nathan.

I hate Microsoft PowerPoint. If I had the sociological evidence I would say it is ruining our entire academic system, but I can say this: It's played a big role in ruining my education. As the slides click by and the class's eyes glaze over, I can't help but wonder, "Is this progress?" I guess the professors use it because they think it makes teaching easier. They can explain the inner workings of a complex idea without having to draw it on the chalkboard. Their notes are displayed for all to see, so that everyone can follow along and download the slides after class... no more note-taking. But for me, this is missing the point. In illustrating an idea on the blackboard, the professor's mind must fully reenact every idea expressed; they must construct a logical flow, one idea following another, with each image they draw and idea they articulate related to the next. It's a difficult task. It takes a lot of preparation, and writing on the blackboard is slow, so figures and examples must be carefully chosen and explained. Yet the difficulties of these "analog" activities are not due to a lack of technology, but to limitations inherent in the learning process itself. The bottleneck is not in the speed at which information can be scrawled on the board but the speed at which that information can be absorbed by students. Do we actually believe that students can learn faster than the experts that are teaching them can write? The articulation of raw data into knowledge, the presentation of ideas in a form optimized for human reception, is the essence of lecture. There's never been a shortage of the resources provided in these slideshows, of graphs and diagrams and laundry-listed theorems. Just open any textbook and you will find endless pages of such information, formatted and explained far more professionally than any amateur slide presentation. But it's all static. You can't follow along as these theorems are proven step by step. Inflating this same static information to fill a classroom wall and pointing at it with a laser beam doesn't solve this problem. With the illusion of structure provided by the ordering of slides, it's easy for the professor to believe that real material is being covered, but an idea displayed all too often fails to result in an idea relayed. The mechanized torrent gives my lectures a rapid pace but a strangely shallow quality, like skimming a novel the night before it's due. They become lifeless and painfully boring, further intensifying the disconnect. It may run counter to our buzzword-enamored academic culture, but this is one beleaguered college senior with a desperate appeal: Get technology out of the classroom. Next time I want to learn by reading, I prefer to turn the pages myself.


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