PowerPoint as an educational tool: A blessing or curse?

Even with Competency-based Education (CBE) in institutions of higher learning, teacher centered practices are still very common in classrooms especially where PowerPoint is everything: the lecture, the notes and the presentation. Between the years 2006 to 2012, one would have assumed teachers were still getting acclimated to the use of the English language, hence, the reading of the slides verbatim. However, many years down the line, the lecture method is still the order of the day and slides still steal the show at the expense of the passive students who must resort to cramming to pass.

Most educators resort to the use of PowerPoint in the classroom on account of its appeal to visual learners; its suitability as a composition plane for course material; its availability to students; and its ability to synchronise with an overall course management environment. In certain occasions, PowerPoint also provides a means of mapping and directing the course of a classroom discussion on a topic, rather than just a means of presenting the materials. This not only makes the material easy to process and analyse, but also adds a new dimension to the content delivery.

However, just because something is a great tool doesn’t mean it is dead-on, especially when not put to its best use. The common trend in our institutions of higher learning today is a pack of course slides filled with notes, with each slide creating a special level of boredom, leaving the students brooding impassively and choking on their own ennui. Usually, this scenario is graced by an instructor, or a self-proclaimed lecturer, who like a reserved preacher (or for lack of a remote pointer) stands by the podium on a talking spree for three hours or so. How is learning, even for the visual learners, supposed to take place when the students are stuck in the rut of the doldrums you have created?

It gets worse when the teacher is unprepared for the class. Sometimes due to our busy schedules or an abnormal attribute of laziness, we retrieve an old PowerPoint from the course bank and head to class with feigned readiness. Because of this, you read from the PowerPoint utterly devoid of the curiously bored eyes gaping at you. At the end of the day, the students are turned into inactive beings who cannot fully engage with the course content. If our goal is to promote learning, can we honestly argue that this is the best way to augment it?

This being said, how can we make the most effective use of this tool? For starters, your slides are not your presentation but an aid to the presentation. Simply put, prepare a presentation for your class in which the PowerPoint is just a part to help you get the students to visualise something or to summarise knowledge. This means that your class will have other interesting interactive activities to increase students’ engagement with course materials, while also learning at the same time. To be able to achieve this, prepare for your class adequately so as to sharpen your mastery of content, to enable you keep contact with the students as opposed to gluing eyes on the slides.

Similarly, do not rout your slides with text, instead, use bullet points interposed with diagrams that reinforce content. Remember the slides are meant for a visual presentation of the content rather than the notes. You can also use the slides to provide written instructions for a task, or to provide questions for discussions during structured group activities. If not used properly, PowerPoint can be a prescription for more teacher talk-time than student talk-time. To prevent this, use it to describe tasks, provide questions and elicit discussions from the class instead of course notes.

Conclusively, it is undoubtable that PowerPoint is one of the powerful tools educators have at their disposal. Nevertheless, if not put into good use and backed up with good presentations and serious preparation, they can be a hindrance to learning. For the slides to be effective in the classroom, they should never be the presentation, but an aid to a presentation.