The power of PowerPoint

Is it time to unplug the PowerPoint for more genuine learning tot ake place?

In my early teaching career, I met a colleague who explained that you only need three things to teach: a piece of chalk, a watch and a hanky (to blow your nose). This minimalist approach found expression in Scott Thornbury’s Dogme Approach in the late nineties and noughties – borrowing the tenets of Lars von Trier’s Dogme approach to film making. At that time, Thornbury and colleagues were responding to a flood of materials: coursebook, video, online, that seemed to get in the way of learning:

[We] are committed to a belief that language learning is both socially motivated and socially constructed, and to this end we are seeking alternatives to models of instruction that are mediated primarily through materials […]. We are looking for ways of exploiting the learning opportunities offered by the raw material of the classroom, that is the language that emerges from the needs, interests, concerns and desires of the people in the room.

Around the same time, Greg Myers, teaching literature at the University of Lancaster, was making a move in the opposite direction. At the University of Texas, he had been used to a lecture being more like a seminar, an hour of engagement through questions and responses between him and his students based on his loose set of notes on a particular literary work. In the UK, he was required to deliver ‘a clear, well-organised, practiced performance that fits the syllabus and the fifty minutes [of lecture time]’ and that would serve as a set of notes for exam revision.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

He experimented with PowerPointTM (PPT), then a new technology, and reflected on the changes this made to the content and delivery of his lectures. Space on the PPT slides meant he sometimes had to omit content or move it to a second slide where it became more salient. He didn’t have the technical skill to insert images so these no longer formed part of his lectures. He had to rethink headings for different parts of the lecture and his ending was a summary of main points rather than a reminder of a provocative example he had begun with. Overall he felt he had moved from a carefully connected sequence with digressions to a series of hierarchical spaces with flashy transitions. The framing of knowledge had changed as PPT presentations were more obviously persuasive rather than expository.  

There were also subtle changes in the way the student audience perceived his delivery. One student commented that he didn’t pay attention to anything the lecturer said that wasn’t written on the slides. Myers reflected that he had become the animator rather than the source of utterances. Instead of speaking with the aid of some visual device, the visuals are speaking with his aid. He didn’t feel a sense of technological determinism because he could always turn off the PPT presentation or choose not to use it at all. This is not so obviously the case now, especially with the move to online teaching, where PPT and other visualising technology support asynchronous and synchronous delivery. But I wonder how many teachers would feel comfortable online with just the (metaphorical) piece of chalk, watch and hanky approach?

I’ve been reflecting on the power of PowerPointTM particularly as I’ve worked with recordings of synchronous classes delivered online in the Heriot-Watt University Pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes, which were migrated for online delivery in 2020. This year I’ve been observing synchronous classes in other institutions, almost always supported by PPT or other visuals. I can see the unintended impact of PPT in these synchronous classes. For the PSE programmes I was involved in designing, the intention was for PPT with a voiceover to provide a substitute teacher, in asynchronous preparation, to guide the students through coursebook tasks. The synchronous sessions were 50 minutes in which I hoped the teachers would adopt the chalk-watch-hanky approach, probing with critical questions to determine how well students had understood the tasks and the underlying concepts being presented.

I expected the synchronous classes to be like Myers lectures before he started using PPT. In other words, I expected the teachers to teach the students in front of them, checking understanding and exploring ideas further, rather than delivering materials. Some teachers were able to do this and to involve students in learning conversations. Other teachers simply read through the PPT slides that had been provided. I’ve seen evidence of teachers carefully planning and reflecting on the synchronous classes and what they hoped the students would take from them, but I’ve also seen teachers who treated the PPT as a substitute for any thinking they might do about students’ learning. The PPT got in the way of them being able to teach effectively.

In my course designer role, I don’t have an answer to this. PSE programmes are intensive and high stakes with teachers employed on temporary contracts and, therefore, not involved in the year-round development. For a consistent student experience, there needs to be good support for teachers to deliver the intended learning outcomes. It seems unfair to ask them to prepare synchronous sessions without any support. On the other hand, providing PPT presentations is a form of technological determinism that teachers find hard to escape.

Myers, Greg, (2000). Powerpoints: Technology, Lectures, and Changing Genres, in Analysing Professional Genres, (Trosborg, A. Ed.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Thornbury, Scott (2010) D is for Dogme, in An A-Z of ELT retrieved online 10.8.21 at February | 2010 | An A-Z of ELT (wordpress.com)

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

3 thoughts on “The power of PowerPoint”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post. When you say ‘For a consistent student experience, there needs to be good support for teachers to deliver the intended learning outcomes’ I certainly agree in principle. Being a Foundation and PSE teacher, often dealing with students who are facing a metaphorical Everest in their learning, I’d love some support, but currently lack the imagination to know what that support might look and feel like in practical terms. More training? More time to achieve lesson objectives?

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    1. Are you aware of BALEAP, https://www.baleap.org/ the professional organization? You can join and receive a copy of the Journal for EAP, which comes out four times a year. BALEAP run meetings and a biennial conference plus a number of online webinars and they have a discussion list and a variety of special interest groups. Interacting with other EAP professionals online or at meetings helps you to develop professionally.

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      1. Yes indeed! I’m a regular attendee in the Academic Listening SIG events, but have also joined others when I’ve been able. In fact, we were in a breakout room for a TEd SIG event not long ago.

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