In praise of PowerPoint

Philip Moriarty stands up for the much-maligned presentation tool

July 16, 2015
Philip Moriarty columnist illustration

Could I ask you to keep a rather shocking admission to yourself? Thanks. If word gets out, I could well find myself laughed out of quite a few academic circles.

I’ll whisper it…

I like PowerPoint.

I know, I know. How could any credible academic admit to that? Isn’t PowerPoint the scourge of the lecture theatre? Isn’t it the source of students’ unwillingness to learn independently? Doesn’t it represent everything that’s wrong with university education in the 21st century?

Well, no.

Both students and academics regularly bemoan “death by PowerPoint”, as a glance at Times Higher Education’s archives will show. But PowerPoint is a presentational tool. Nothing more, nothing less. If students are finding it difficult to engage with the material that we’re discussing and explaining, then it’s rather a cop-out to blame that on the technology. Of course, simply reciting information off a set of text-laden PowerPoint slides is a hopeless way of giving a lecture. But it’s not Microsoft’s fault for introducing the tool – the problem lies somewhat closer to home.

I have always seen my primary job as a lecturer to be about enthusing and engaging students, not as the deliverer of information. It’s 2015 after all. There are multiple sources of information out there – admittedly some more reliable than others – and a wide variety of channels through which to access it. The idea that a lecture should be just about delivering a clear set of notes at a fixed point in time is really a rather quaint concept in our YouTube, blogosphere, Twitter and BuzzFeed world.

The beauty of PowerPoint is that it allows a variety of different teaching strategies to be embedded within a lecture. Video, images, simulations, real-time quizzes and, yes, even text can all be seamlessly combined. (Well, OK, not always seamlessly. It’s truly remarkable that in a technologically advanced society where we can land a probe on a comet, recreate the conditions of the early universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang and communicate virtually instantaneously across the globe, it’s still nearly impossible to transfer a multimedia-enabled PowerPoint file from one computer to another and have it work first time. And Microsoft certainly isn’t blameless when it comes to this lack of portability.)

It’s been said time and again that PowerPoint is a crutch for poor speakers. Possibly. But I’ve attended quite a few PowerPoint-free conference presentations – almost always outside my discipline (physics) – where the speaker has dictated their presentation from a transcript. In a monotone. While staring at the floor. Any type of presentational crutch would have been immensely helpful.

PowerPoint and alternative presentation platforms such as Prezi or Keynote are the norm for physics conferences, and rightly so. We need to get the core message of our research across in as engaging and as memorable a way as possible, and in a restricted time frame. This is exactly what PowerPoint facilitates so well – when it’s used correctly. Of course, I’ve seen my fair share of physics presentations where the slides have been plastered with impenetrably dense mathematical detail, the speaker has interminably focused on the minutiae of their research, the audience couldn’t see the wood for the trees, and I’ve come away from the talk knowing less than when I arrived.

But this is not due to any deficiency of PowerPoint or its digital presentation siblings. Soul-crushing presentations have always been with us; there wasn’t some golden age when each and every academic charismatically explained their work with the audience hanging on their every word. From my days as a PhD student in the early 1990s, I remember talks and seminars where, long before PowerPoint was the norm, overhead projector acetates were progressively covered in thick, dense scribbles and we steadily lost the will to live.

I would argue that, far from catalysing the downfall of academic rigour, PowerPoint has been responsible for a net improvement in the standard of academic seminars and lectures. Yes, sometimes there may not be the most subtle use of fonts and graphics (and I’ll hold my hands up here – I’ve used Comic Sans on occasion. For shame). But it is rare nowadays, at least at physics conferences, to encounter a presentation without any type of graphic or attempt to condense information into an easy to grasp visual message. This is particularly true of PhD students, postdocs and early career researchers, who often exploit PowerPoint’s capabilities to the max, but have the subtlety and nous to not go overboard with dancing cat graphics or rotating, flashing fonts of a 1990s vintage.

A common complaint I hear about “undergrads these days” is that the combination of PowerPoint and the provision of printed notes is killing off what some view as the “essential” skill of note-taking during a lecture. I remain entirely unconvinced of this.

Eric Mazur, Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard University, often describes the traditional lecture format as a way of transferring the instructor’s lecture notes to the students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either. While this arguably overstates the case – some traditional “chalk and talk” lectures can of course be engaging, inspiring and challenging – it’s nonetheless clear that the idea of the lecture as a means of passively transferring information is overvalued and outdated.

Instead, we should be aiming to involve and actively engage with students in the lecture; to make our teaching connect with, and challenge, as many as possible in that room. PowerPoint isn’t a barrier to doing this. If we exploit it correctly, it breaks down the barriers. We shouldn’t blame the technology for deficiencies that are wholly human.

Philip Moriarty is professor of physics at the University of Nottingham.

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Reader's comments (2)

Very good article, Philip. In common with all of Microsoft Office, Powerpoint suffers from 'familiarity breeding contempt'. In fact, it always amazes me at the power and functionality of these ubiquitous productivity tools in the hands of people who really understand their capabilities (for example you can create some really good 3-D rendered images using powerpoint if you know how). Of course, all of these tools do have their limitations (Excel, in particular, uses calculation short-cuts that introduce inaccuracies that render it useless in many advanced scientific or engineering applications - but it wasn't really designed for that). To flip-flop and hark back to my undergraduate days (where I think I was probably one of the last generations to be taught by some real 'chalk and talk' lecturers), the great advantage of 'chalk and talk' was pace. Traditionally deliver lectures were generally, in my experience, delivered at an appropriate pace whereas, with powerpoint, it is easier to cram slides full of information and rattle through concepts in a lecturer without giving time to embed some initial understanding. This, of course, backs up Philip's point that it is the bad workman that blames the tools. People who approach the planning of presentations by just clicking on powerpoint and putting stuff on slides are probably not going to deliver the best presentations, because they aren't actually planning at all.
POWERPOINT rules - OK? I love it! I use it! The students learn from it! The bottom line ... creativity rules!

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