January/February 2002 // Commentary
My PowerPoint Summer
by Robert Sommer
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Robert Sommer "My PowerPoint Summer" The Technology Source, January/February 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

It had been a good budget year with money allocated for new computers. Campus wisdom is to apply for funds when they become available, as future years may be lean. I requested a sleek laptop, having admired those used by visiting speakers. The images were clean and crisp, even in a lighted room. There were occasional technical glitches, although audiences were patient and polite as the speaker struggled to connect cables to the classroom projection system. Our graduate students learned the technology in the belief that it is essential in the academic marketplace. I reasoned that if those I am paid to instruct could acquire this new skill, I could too. In addition, I wanted to justify the purchase of my fancy toy. So it happens that new technology insinuates itself into campus culture; diffusion from visiting speakers and graduate students to senior faculty.

For a time, I could not stop copying images. I ran out of zip disks which I thought had unlimited storage capacity. When my computer was devoted to word processing, I could easily keep a year's output on a single disk. Now I was burning through a zip in an afternoon and proved that a picture is worth more than a thousand words, at least in storage requirements. I understand why the campus bookstore keeps zip disks locked behind glass doors. Image addicts will do anything to maintain a habit.

Getting started in this new format was not difficult using a self-paced tutorial from the campus Teaching Resources Center. I also had some handholding from a knowledgeable partner and a campus center with the reassuring name, The Arbor, whose staff were accustomed to nervous, insecure, and sometimes-desperate faculty. They did not snicker at my elementary questions or imply that my machine was obsolete, low on memory, or needed new bushings. They took me where I was lying and raised me up.

I went through a scanning frenzy, spending weekends at the office digitizing slides and textbook illustrations and capturing images from the Web. I had previously criticized textbooks with scores of colored photographs that added more to cost than content. Now I eagerly sought out these coffee table textbooks for their glossy images. When I tried showing my presentations in other venues, I found that my files were large and unwieldy. I had been instructed to scan materials at high resolution. I subsequently had to learn how to reduce file size.

Copying for classroom use is not a new activity for me. I was probably in the top 1% of those in my field in use of slides and other graphics. What has changed is the ease of scanning and the quality of the output. My hand-made slides were amateurish, poorly cropped, sometimes crooked, dark, and cluttered with extraneous material as no editing was possible. I lacked a good way to integrate graphics and text. Slide titles typed on a word processor and pasted on a sheet of paper looked juvenile. Now, even without knowing the electronic bells and whistles, I can make professional quality A/V materials. The temptation to incorporate graphics into my lectures has increased tremendously.

Projection of paper or plastic slides had been cumbersome. Even if there were a projector already set up in the room (chained to a table or locked in a projection booth), it was necessary to carry a tray to class, pull down the screen, and dim the lights. I cannot count the number of problems I have encountered in lecture halls with complex lighting systems controlled by multiple, poorly labeled switches. Because of the preparations required, I rarely interrupted a lecture to show single images. Typically I gave the spoken lecture first and ended with a tray of slides illustrating multiple points. It was more of a visual review covering a body of material rather than images accompanying specific concepts.

There were several unexpected benefits of my PowerPoint summer. I culled my large slide collection, discarding those that were obsolete or poorly made. In addition, while searching through textbooks for images, I came across new materials for my lectures. This type of borrowing had always been part of my course preparation but I never previously had the motivation to systematically peruse a dozen introductory textbooks. I found items useful for courses other than the one for which I was seeking materials.

Previously, there had seemed a limited number of images available for my courses. For many topics, I had no slides. With my newfound skill, the image pool appears limitless. If I cannot find something appropriate in a book, I can search the Web. It is difficult to conceive of a topic for which relevant illustrations cannot be found. As an example, I had previously used verbal metaphors to describe the "personal space" zone around the human body. I had likened this comfort zone to an aura and a soap bubble. I went directly to my favorite search engine Google to pictorialize these concepts. When I typed "aura," I found and captured religious figures with colorful auras in famous paintings. Searching under "soap bubble" brought me to new realms, as soap bubbles are of interest to physicists, especially in the ways that several bubbles combine. I captured beautiful images of iridescent bubbles, some several feet in diameter.

Whether seeing a picture of an aura surrounding Buddha or a child blowing a large soap bubble enhances student learning about the comfort zone around the human body is debatable. By using concrete referents, the illustrations may hinder the learning of abstract concepts, undermining the very basis of metaphor, which is transfer from one realm to another. Personal space is not literally an aura or a soap bubble, it is only figuratively similar. I wonder if I am spending time producing visual clutter that decreases conceptual thinking.

My use of these scanned images will be restricted to the classroom which I believe this falls under the "fair use" doctrine. I suspect the legal situation resembles that in other types of copying. When there were just a few clunky, noisy copy machines available in the 1950s, making slow, fuzzy black-and-white copies on special coated paper, widespread theft was not a serious problem. As image quality, chroma, copy speed, and machine availability improved, copyright infringement cases reached the courts. As a result, the machines at local copy shops and on campus have posted warnings against copyright infringement. Rental videos contain stern admonitions from the FBI about unauthorized copying. The time may not be too distant when scanners carry similar warnings.

The important pedagogical issue is whether the new technology enhances student learning. I have the nagging feeling that I am cluttering my lectures with extraneous images. I want my students to be actively engaged with the material rather than sit glassy-eyed watching pretty pictures. In the past, when I used a professionally-made video series in class, I found it encouraged passivity. No one asked questions or made comments during the show and it was difficult to stimulate discussion after the show was over. I don't want this to happen with my powerbook presentations. I will reserve some slides for in-class exercises to encourage active learning.

There have been many criticisms of the hegemony of the lecture method in higher education, the Sage on the Stage. Sadly I have not seem a better alternative for most of my course material. Programmed instruction and educational television have come and gone. There are classrooms on campus with disconnected TV monitors hanging forlornly from the walls. I recall rolls of transparent film at the sides of overhead projectors and a TV projection table next to the podium, from which I could transmit images directly onto TV monitors. All these have disappeared from campus classrooms. I don't know if today's expensive projection systems designed to accommodate laptop computers will suffer the same fate. I accept the compactness and crispness of PowerPoint for single presentations, and I have prepared several talks to use at professional meetings. This will not resolve my questions about its pedagogical value. Possibilities of Distance Learning are beyond my ken; I must be concerned with my classes rather than future possibilities for the technology beyond the campus. The chief justification for my summer scanning will remain benefit to my students.

There have been concerns that PowerPoint is less personal than a lecture. I think this is true only when a canned presentation fills the entire 50-minutes. This would be similar to a non-stop fifty-minute lecture without time for student comments or questions or a film shown followed by "Class dismissed." My use of PowerPoint is modest; it will accompany rather than replace my lectures, a compact substitute for the slides and overheads I had previously shown. I am able to intersperse text and images instead of separating them as I had done previously.

When I sum up what I have accomplished there are several unanticipated plusses. I culled and updated my A/V materials and found new material. Although I could have done these things without the stimulus of PowerPoint, it is very unlikely that I would have. New technology can compel desirable changes that could have been made under the old technology but weren't because of inertia.

In a logical world, an innovation should be developed, debugged, and thoroughly tested before being widely adopted. The reality in higher education is different, with innovations proposed and adopted, bugs and all, and with expensive infrastructure costs, before they are evaluated. Although I am sentient part of the process, I cannot foresee if this evolutionary line will go anywhere. No one pressured me to change my course format, and it is unlikely that this summer's activity will bring me any brownie points in the merit review system. After all, I could have spent my summer doing disciplinary research. I invested the time and effort for several reasons?¢‚Ǩ‚Äù curiosity about changing technology, a desire to maintain my self-image as a conscientious instructor, and to justify an expensive new computer. I feel part of a larger experiment that lacks direction, coordination, and evaluation. This is not the way I'd operate as a researcher. After four decades of college teaching, I'm still a grunt in the trenches rather than a strategist at general staff headquarters. I'm not even sure that there are headquarters for this campaign.

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