Recently, I discovered this slide share argument, called “Power Pointless” (props to David Coffey, @delta_dc, for posting & Rebecca Schuman, @pankisseskafka, for creating). The argument is straightforward and, I believe, spot-on accurate: that Power Point presentations are abused by professors and students throughout academia, and that the quality of learning has dramatically declined through the misuse & abuse of this medium.
It’s hard to argue otherwise. We’ve all had a “death by Power Point” class. Just thinking about my own experiences make me want to scream. Why are you doing this? Do you really think this is effective teaching?
So let’s just agree that it’s a problem. Power Point is routinely misused and abused. And it’s infuriating.
My first reaction is to blame the instructor. Lazy, lacking creativity, apathetic – pick your stock shocked and outraged response.
But what if the primary cause of misuse & abuse of Power Point doesn’t originate with individuals? What if the primary cause is not individualistic, but institutional?
Recently I was asked to create an online digital course, posting lessons, links, activities, assessments, and online videos using Power Point slides to supplement information. I believed it would take about two weeks of work during my summer. It didn’t. Two months into summer the project just kept going and going. By labor day weekend I still wasn’t done. I entered the project with all the best intentions, planning to make creative, engaging videos with animations and multiple cuts edited on iMovie. By September I just wanted to be done. Let’s just say the final video product was far from engaging. Death by Power Point would be a nice way to describe it. Since this experience caused me to rethink my standard shocked and outraged response to the “death by Power Point” scenario. Now, when I am tempted to pass judgment, I remember the obstacles to effective teaching that I faced. Could college professors also face significant obstacles?
Indeed, college professors routinely face similar situations. They are regularly over-worked, under-paid, and stretched far beyond their limits to implement effective teaching. Tenure is being systematically filtered out and, in it’s place, is an army of adjunct professors who are paid barely above the poverty level, with no health care, few opportunities to network with colleagues, and increasingly shrinking chances to escape their situation. According to the Huffington Post, there are several constraints on a typical adjunct professor:
- “Adjuncts typically earn between $20,000 & $25,000 annually.”
- “An adjunct must teach between 17 and 24 classes a year to afford a home and utilities in Boston.”
- Adjunct professors routinely face class cancellations with little to no warning .
Given the constraints above, it should be assumed that every adjunct professor is working two overwhelmingly full-time jobs: one to teach his/her classes, and the other to look for a tenure-track position. Even worse, the route to finding a full-time, tenure-track position is not good teaching, but publication and research. Still worse, an estimated 67% of professors are not in a tenure-track position.
So, to review:
- The vast majority of college teaching is done by adjunct professors.
- The vast majority of college adjunct professors are over-worked, and paid barely above the poverty line.
- The path out of adjunct teaching is not good teaching.
Given the constraints listed above, the question is not “why do college students routinely face ineffective Power Points?” Instead, the question is “why don’t ineffective Power Points happen more than they already do?”
Training professors on the effective use of Power Point may help alleviate the problem, but the root cause is not individualistic, but institutional. Quite simply, it is unreasonable to expect significant gains in effective college-level teaching as long as the above constraints remain “baked into the cake” of education. Or, to put it another way, teaching won’t improve until our institutions make better teaching their top priority.
In the end, it’s on us. Institutions exist to perpetuate their own existence. We cannot expect them to change unless they are compelled to change.
So what are we going to do about it? How can we communicate to the higher ed institutions that effective is their first calling, their reason to exist? Very little will change until we effectively answer these questions.