Power Pointless

Interesting article at NPR’s All Tech Considered. Worth a read.

Many have noticed that PowerPoint can be a distraction from the material or can cause the audience to lose focus. It can turn the attention of the audience and the presenter toward the display, rather than toward each other. It can hinder two-way communication and, thus, critical interaction.

So lots of folks–from world-class physicists to the former Director of Central Intelligence to the CEOs of Amazon and LinkedIn–are ditching, banning, or reducing the use of PowerPoint. One General says that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” Another suggests it’s an internal threat to a successful mission. Apparently, NASA blames PowerPoint in part for the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003.

This all reminds me of a presenting at a conference when I was a Ph.D. student. PowerPoint was the prevailing approach to presentations. When my advisor asked if I would be using PowerPoint, I said, “No, I’m going ‘PowerPointless.’”

Under the circumstances, that probably was a poor turn of phrase. Ph.D. students should not tell their advisors (or anyone else) that they plan to be “PowerPointless.” What I meant, of course, was not that I would be powerfully pointless (though perhaps the audience would say that I was). Rather, I meant that I had chosen to go without PowerPoint. But I had chosen it for a reason–PowerPoint so often seemed to me to distract from the presentation, to allow a bad presentation to pass for good, or to reduce critical interaction with the material. The technology itself often led to “power-pointless” presentations.

As a teacher, I now use PowerPoint sparingly. I don’t oppose the technology–it can be used well–but I’ve decided to use it primarily for maps, select charts and graphs, photos, and instructions for class exercises that I want to stay on the display while people work. If I don’t need or have any of those, I pretty much don’t use it. (The bigger the class, the more inclined I am to use it, though.) I haven’t used it at all this year, but I anticipate using it a few times for my course on Chicago in the second half of this semester.

So if anyone hears my students saying that one of my classes was “PowerPointless…”

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