There are usually two kinds of people who use PowerPoint, regardless of skill level: those who love it, and those who hate it.
I’m guessing that Dr. Paul Ralph’s piece calling for universities to ban PowerPoint because it “makes students stupid and professors boring” highlights that he’s a part of the latter group.
I mean, yeah. The title is just a tad direct. Nonetheless, I wanted to take the time today to address Dr. Ralph’s concerns.
To ban or not to ban
Let’s break this down.
Dr. Ralph claims that students’ over-reliance on slides will lead to them finding it “unreasonable” to read books, attend classes, take notes, and do homework.
The award-winning senior lecturer then goes on to say that this same over-reliance will lead to students believing they have become skilled and knowledgeable without actually dedicating time to other, more extensive, sources of knowledge such as books, articles, and problem-solving techniques.
In essence, Dr. Ralph lists three points as to why “PowerPoint slides are toxic to education.” These are:
- Slides discourage complex thinking.
- Students come to think of a course as a set of slides.
- Slides discourage reasonable expectations.
I come in peace, Dr. Ralph
Before getting into this, let me be clear in saying I fully and wholeheartedly respect Dr. Ralph’s opinion on this topic.
In fact, I especially respect his opinion because he’s an academic, and academics love to research before presenting an idea to the world. Hell, he even sought the view of his class!
I, therefore, hope I’m making it clear that this isn’t about me responding to some random hate post on the internet. After all, Dr. Ralph is an educator who cares deeply about his students and is passionate about the learning and development process that many teachers and students pursue to become valuable contributors to society.
The Slide Cow Opinion
I hate blog posts that go on-and-on with fluff before hitting the main point. So I’m going to slap the main point on here first.
I wholeheartedly agree that PowerPoint slides, and PowerPoint slides alone, are not a comprehensive source of learning material.
That said, I do not agree that universities should out right ban them.
PowerPoint is a means to an end and should be treated as such, period. When someone treats PowerPoint as an end in itself, all hell will break loose.
Say you were hammering a nail into a wall. If you slam your hammer into your hand and break your thumb, what exactly are you going to do? Call up the hammer police? Sue the company that made the hammer? Set up a GoFundMe campaign to ban hammers nation-wide?
No. You blame yourself because you didn’t do it right in the first place.
The same concept applies to this. If students are becoming too reliant on PowerPoint slides and feel that the slides provide sufficient learning material to become an expert on the subject matter, then that is the mistake of the student.
If a professor believes that the slides are enough for a student to learn certain topics, whether simple or complex, then that is the mistake of the professor.
I don’t think it gets clearer than that. But hey, since we made it this far, let’s address Dr. Ralph’s reasons for claiming PowerPoint slides are “toxic.”
Discouraging complex thinking
Dr. Ralph claims that “slides encourage instructors to present complex topics using bullet points, slogans, abstract figures and oversimplified tables with minimal evidence.” Furthermore, he suggests that this discourages “deep analysis of complex, ambiguous situations because it is nearly impossible to present a complex, ambiguous situation on a slide.”
Come on now. Impossible? That’s a strong word to use.
There is some merit to the argument, though. In fact, I experienced it first hand during my time in college.
I had a professor that wanted to teach us a model used for strategic analysis in various business scenarios. She summed it up in five bullet points. Of course, all of these five bullet points were on a dull PowerPoint slide.
As you’d expect, she read every point out loud and then moved on to the next slide. The funny thing is, the textbook we were using for the class had six full pages dedicated to that model alone.
But to say that the slides encouraged her to simplify a complex model in 45 seconds just because they exist? That’s unlikely.
What is more likely is that she got lazy and didn’t bother going into the details, which is something she could have done with or without PowerPoint slides.
Further to this, only two other students and I asked her to go into more detail about that model because we didn’t feel we were learning, well, anything.
After class, we still felt that something was off. So we went to the library, opened up our textbooks and studied the hell out of that model just in case it was to come up in the midterm that was scheduled two weeks later. And hey, what do you know? The model was in fact in the midterm. In fact, it made up 20% of the midterm’s grade.
So, did that one slide with the five bullet points help at all?
Surprisingly, it did. It was a pretty damn good summary of the model. Five bullet points are all it took to refresh our memories on what we learned, and it was a damn good refresher that we used just before we were sitting for our finals.
We were the only ones to get an A in the course.
The way I see it, the problem here is twofold. On one level, the professor got lazy and didn’t spend enough time on the model in question (which makes her accountable). At the same time, the majority of the students didn’t bother to learn anything themselves and relied on five bullet points (which makes the students accountable).
In both cases, these scenarios have a likely chance of occurring even if PowerPoint did not exist.
With this point, Dr. Ralph exclaims that “students come to think of a course as a set of slides.”
I don’t know about you, but I know, for a fact, that the students who studied for their courses using nothing but the PowerPoint slides provided did not do so well academically.
At best, they were C students.
Dr. Ralph then makes an interesting point stating that “good teachers who present realistic complexity and ambiguity are criticized for being unclear. Teachers who eschew bullet points for graphical slides are criticized for not providing proper notes.”
I completely agree with this point, but I don’t think it has anything to do with PowerPoint per se.
Instead, I offer an alternative to the criticism conundrum: crappy students will blame everyone and everything but themselves.
If PowerPoint slides did not exist, they would blame it on circumstances such as the professor assigning too much homework, or speaking in a monotone.
My favorite critique that I once overheard is “the professor was too good looking, and I keep getting distracted in class.”
The bottom line is that educators have the responsibility to educate by any means necessary. If that means simplifying complex concepts into one slide and then expanding on it later, then that is the way it should be. If that process doesn’t work for the students in the class, then the educator should find something that does work.
On the other hand, if the educator did everything (and I do mean everything) he/she can to educate his/her students, and they just won’t bite, then it’s likely that the student is at fault.
I’m a believer that 99% of the time, it isn’t the teacher, it’s the student.
So really, although I do see this opinion as one that is valid, I feel that Dr. Ralph is just exasperated from the amount of not-so-great students he has to deal with on a daily basis.
Here, Dr. Ralph states that when he used PowerPoint, “students expected the slides to contain every detail necessary for projects, tests, and assignments.”
Look, I’m not a professor, nor am I an academic, nor do I know how these things work.
But if I were in his shoes, I would set my expectations for students and say “no, I’m not going to do that, refer to the textbook, ask me questions and come see me in my office hours for details, as students should.”
But I guess that’s just me.
Again, I didn’t write this piece to attack Dr. Ralph. I wouldn’t ever attack a member of the academic community who is a passionate educator. I did, however, write this piece to shed light on what is happening in the classroom, and I’m fairly confident that PowerPoint has absolutely nothing to do with it, and hence, there is simply no need to ban PowerPoint in universities.
In fact, I’m certain that if an educator took the time to craft PowerPoint slides that seek to engage his/her students rather than only explain subject matter, things can only get better.
I even experienced this once when I attended a class on comic book design. The educator made every single slide a part of a comic and even used superheroes and villains to explain the design concepts. To this day, I remember everything he taught us.
Remember, PowerPoint is a tool. It all depends on how you use it.
Note: do keep in mind Dr. Ralph did base his piece on Dr. Bent Meier Sørensen’s piece, Let’s ban PowerPoint in lectures – it makes students more stupid and professors more boring.