Too much of a bad thing

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PowerPoint in education was a bad idea

The late Mr Hashmi (may God bless his soul) of Sadiq Public School was aware of the educative value of writing things down. Of course, 1988 belonged to the pre-PowerPoint era (thank God for that), but his way of teaching high-school chemistry was unique even for those days. He would use the blackboard for equations, diagrams and any development based on those, but delivered the lecture in the form of short, well thought-out, slowly-uttered sentences to be written down by the students in their ‘classwork’ notebooks (each sentence was repeated twice). The students, in addition to any other homework assignments, were required to reproduce that day’s work in their ‘homework’ notebooks, something Mr Hashmi made it a point to check in the very next class. Even the most indifferent student therefore wrote down the contents in his own hand at least twice. At the very least, it made learning an activity participated in equally by the instructor and the student.

Not for a moment suggesting that the Hashmi way is necessarily the best way of learning, the benefit of noting things down cannot be overemphasised. However, it seems that in the intervening years we have come a long way in education, albeit in the wrong direction. Especially when it comes to the higher institutions of learning, the ubiquitous use (read misuse) of PowerPoint has produced in most disciplines, a breed of students which scoffs at the idea of something as primitive as taking notes in the class. In many cases these students can’t be blamed for doing a mean imitation of a statue: when the teacher isn’t putting in much effort, he can hardly demand it from the student. Besides, he isn’t usually giving the student much time any way before bombarding him with more information in the next slide. Gone too is the textbook. Why pore over the textbook when there are ‘lecture slides’, presumably covering all the ‘important stuff’? The average student therefore sits in the classroom like a reluctant guest at his in-laws’, resolved to endure the inevitable torture without making a scene (if he isn’t already blissfully asleep, that is). He doesn’t display the signs of somebody keen to benefit from a valuable, exciting session. Often understandably so, because usually it isn’t a valuable, exciting session.

So much for the students. PowerPoint’s effects on the teachers have been no-less debilitating. Gone are the days of intense planning and preparation before a lecture. The instructor comes to the class underprepared (sometimes unprepared) because he knows he is ‘armed’ with last years’ slides. He proceeds to go through the slides mechanically; and because he isn’t developing the concepts step by step, on the board along with the students, he omits to explain crucial points that are obvious to him having delivered the lecture so many times. Years of this activity finally make him completely dependent on the PowerPoint: snatch it away and he will probably struggle to explain the most elementary topics. It also makes him an insufferable bore.

The instructor comes to the class underprepared (sometimes unprepared) because he knows he is ‘armed’ with last years’ slides

While no replacement for the board and the notebook combination, the projector (or the LED screen) certainly has its place in education. There are times when true-to-scale figures are required to make a point. Or intricate graphics that can’t be drawn on the board without wasting much time. Also, there are occasions that call for videos to be shown in the class. However, these occasions are less frequent than is usually imagined. For in many cases, too much precision in a graph (for example), far from fostering understanding of the trend diverts attention away from the broader point. If the teacher’s judgment demands that a projected image is required, it must be shown. However, it’s rather easy to overdo it, because the PowerPoint slope is a notoriously slippery one. So much so that it’s not uncommon now to see the solution of numerical ‘exercises’ (which, by definition, need to be done, not seen) being displayed to the students. If one could learn a skill by watching, dogs would be butchers.

There’s this popular movement among high-school and university students, which in its essence makes a lot of sense. It (rightly) puts stress on the need to encourage understanding of concepts by the student, instead of forcing rote learning on him. So far so good. Like all movements however, it’s very easy to take it to bizarre extremes. In its more exaggerated forms, it tends to hover tantalizingly close to the craziness threshold, eventually crossing it. When a student insists that it’s unreasonable to expect him to recall from memory the cosine of 30˚ (for example) when he can rely on his calculator for that piece of information, you know that that threshold has been crossed. This malady is found in direct proportion to a man’s aversion to picking up pen and paper and doing things as opposed to ‘seeing’ them on slides. PowerPoint may not be the sole culprit here, but the passive learning culture promoted by it is one of the leading factors here, which has started to affect the teachers as well. Too much reliance on PowerPoint has resulted in a sharp decline of the ability, on the part of teachers as well as students, to illustrate their thoughts using simple hand-drawn diagrams, for example.

Education is as much about learning as it is about unlearning silly things. It’s time two things were unlearnt by our educators. One, that newer technology is necessarily superior to the older one. And two, that there’s anything particularly new about the PowerPoint, the laptop and the projector (all of which predate the births of today’s undergraduate students). These ‘new’ technologies are not only making learning less efficient, they are also making subjects less exciting for the students (which is even more unfortunate). Each lecture is a performance, and instructors would do well to remember that delivering even the best prepared lecture on the PowerPoint is like a ghazal singer lip-syncing in a ‘live’ concert. Howsoever well enacted it may be, it’s not convincing; and if the object is to inspire students to love their subject, it leaves much to be desired. Few things in life are more exhilarating than delivering a productive lecture. This exhilaration makes teaching worthwhile, despite its less-than-exciting evaluation part. PowerPoint may make life easier for the instructor. But coming at the expense of the joy of delivering a stimulating lecture, this ease is extremely dearly purchased.