PowerPoint 'makes us stupid'

The U.S. military is hooked on PowerPoint, reports the New York Times. Some are fighting back.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

. . . Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.

University professors “know that PowerPoint shuts up discussion and shuts down critical thinking,” writes Margaret Soltan of University Diaries. Her post unleashed her commenters’ pent-up PowerPoint rage.

From a professor:

Some teachers put their entire presentation on powerpoint and post it to the web. Result – students download the powerpoints and don’t come to class.

A college student:

At least 80% of my classes revolve around the powerpoint. . . . It is an issue with our culture of “get straight to the point” – literally. the powerpoint – 15 slides with 5 bullet points each dont even given to scratch the surface of some of the more complex problems or ideas that are trying to be presented….

A graduate:

You pay $3,000 for a class to have a professor read bullet points off the slides. It has greatly diminished the capacity for people to actually communicate anything of substance.

Textbook manufacturers supply PowerPoint slides, which cuts the prep time for P3s (PowerPoint Professors), writes a former college instructor.  P3s “can get quite rattled when asked an ‘off-PowerPoint’ question.”

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  1. This is an issue of how people use the technology, not the technology itself. When teachers show students how to use PowerPoint to give a presentation, a large portion of that instruction is telling students NOT to just read from the slides. If professors and military commanders are simply reading five sentences per major topic included in a presentation, they need to learn how to use the technology more effectively.

    PowerPoints used in this way are really just the modern manifestation of a chalkboard and chalk- just a bit easier to read and with more images. The instruction still revolves around the teacher speaking to a group of students.

  2. I agree with Nick. BUT, you all need to see some of the sad PowerPoints furnished by textbook publishers. Usually they’re only good for stealing graphics from. My rule: no more than 20 minutes of slide material in a 75-minute lecture.

  3. I’m so, so glad that my children finished college before Powerpoint. I use it in my work, in a very limited way, and know that over-use is a cop-out and almost theft. How can colleges and universitites charge what they do when the classes consist of Powerpoint?

  4. There’s a great, and hilarious, series by Don McMillan about the poor ways in which people use PowerPoint: http://www.youtube.com/user/donmcmillan96#p/u/3/lpvgfmEU2Ck

  5. Like any tool, it can be used well or it can be used badly.

    I use it because several of the classes I teach are heavy on illustrations and graphs of data. It’s really nice to be able to take photographs of, for example, glacial landforms, and easily show them on a screen (Yes, I know, slide projectors used to fill that role, but with PowerPoint, you can easily add arrows and captions).

    The “canned” presentations that come with textbooks are AWFUL, though – some of them, I wonder if they were written by someone not a native English speaker. Very very awkward, and far more words on a slide than you need. (I use slides of keywords; saves me having to spell them out or write them on the board and have the students say, “Is that a g or a y?”)

    One thing I will say I notice: dark rooms are a big part of the problem. We had old projectors that were so dim you had to have the lights out half the time. It’s very easy for a student to “hide” in a dark room, and it’s very easy for a prof to stop worrying about “engaging” the students when he or she cannot see them. Both the projectors in the rooms where I teach broke this semester, and were replaced by newer, more powerful projectors – I can leave the class lights on 100% of the time now, and it seems like people are more comfortable asking questions and discussing and giving their own examples of things.

  6. Eric Jablow says:

    Every so often, the US military goes on a war against PowerPoint. Rumsfeld tried it, I think. PowerPoint always wins. Those of us who have taken Edward Tufte’s course on visualizing information have seen many of the worst examples; I recommend his books.

    You should look at the nadir of PowerPoint presentations: Peter Norvig’s adaptation of the Gettysburg Address.

  7. Re the pre-canned presentation: for most people, it is *very* difficult to give someone else’s presentation and do a good job. It would be much better to take a few ideas & maybe slides from the presentation that comes with the textbook and weave them into your own version, so that it fits the way you naturally think and talk..

    The deeper problem is that many professors care so little about their teaching responsibilities that they don’t even attempt to develop good presentation skills. Doesn’t show much respect for their students, or self-respect either.

  8. What makes us dumber is the lack of commitment to get smarter after the ppt presentation. This attitude is not dependent on any technological tools.

    I had a statistics class where the teacher gave excellent examples and different ways of doing exercises in numerous ppt presentations. To date in my research work I still refer to those slides. BEST use of ppt. I’d much rather go to a power point presentation where a clear message is being transmitted than have 2 hours of rambling from a professor that talks about all sort of “irrelevant” things.

  9. So glad to see more educators involved in the conversation when the The Daily Riff made the connection to our students when story broke several days ago http://bit.ly/aPXhYV

  10. I think I’d rather poke my eye out than sit through a PowerPoint presentation. PowerPoints should illustrate what you are talking about. Instead, most people read their entire PowerPoint presenation to you. And, of course, they give you a handout of their PowerPoint as well. Yikes!


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