Or Learning to Duck Our Own Bullets
This article is adapted from an earlier publication by C. Adams, 2008. “The Poetics of PowerPoint.” Explorations in Media Ecology, 7, no. 4, 283–298.
As a piece of technology-in-use, PowerPoint has rapidly become an organizing template that shapes beliefs and actions in lecture theatres, boardrooms, conference halls and elsewhere.
(Gabriel 2008, 268)
In classrooms and lecture halls across North America, the digital wall art of PowerPoint is brilliantly aglow. This presentation software, originally developed to replace overhead transparencies, touches the lives of managers and mourners, children and churchgoers, statesmen and students alike. One 4x3 bulleted frame, it seems, fits all occasions. PowerPoint has inspired a host of zealous advocates and equally zealous critics; it has been hailed as a new art form (Byrne 2003) and implicated in the crash of a NASA space shuttle (Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003). Not without exasperation, some people quietly protest that it is only a tool. But is it?
PowerPoint arrives in the midst of a complex human learning environment—the classroom—an already constituted place characterized by irresolvable historical and present-day presumptions about the manner and purposes of education. In the prevailing climate of lionizing standardized testing and measurable learning outcomes, PowerPoint has been embraced as a welcome “educational solution” even though more than a decade of educational research has failed to demonstrate that PowerPoint-enhanced lessons and lectures actually lead to any significant improvements in academic performance (Levasseur and Sawyer 2006). Visual communications expert Edward Tufte (2003) claims that PowerPoint supports a cognitive style inconsistent with both the development of higher analytical thinking skills and the acquisition of rich narrative and interpretive understanding. Other scholars worry that PowerPoint commands an “epistemological monopoly” (Crang 2003, 239) that encourages the translation of all forms of knowledge into a single representational system—bulleted slide sets—and introduces unintended corporate undertones into the classroom.
At issue is the powerful sway PowerPoint exerts in prescribing a new presentation genre and set of discursive practices in the classroom, and its formative influence on how knowledge is represented, presented and subsequently held by students. In using PowerPoint, teachers and students are at once aided by its easy-to-use productivity interface and seduced by the language, imagery, framing, at-handedness, sensuality and mediation of its symbolism, materiality and script (Adams 2008). PowerPoint inspires a particular style of thinking and oratorical performance, and introduces a normative framework for staging knowledge: headings and bullet points for the presenter to talk about. This scaffolding of abbreviation, built into the software as default signage, implicitly signals to teachers and students how they should visualize and subsequently present their knowledge to others. The PowerPoint slide presentation, regardless of the kind of knowledge it is serving to frame, may also exercise a powerful sway over the teacher in moments of teaching, though at times it might appear as an impenetrable obstacle rather than a generative support to the teachers’ sense of pedagogical tact (Adams 2006).
What does all this mean for teachers using PowerPoint in their classrooms? Swearing off slideware is not an answer. Indeed, we can no longer turn off PowerPoint in the larger, more meaningful sense. It has long since sunk into the taken-for-granted background of everyday teaching practices and student learning experiences, occasionally resurfacing in unexpected places—a parent–teacher interview, a Dilbert cartoon, a church service—only to sink back once more into the silent depths of our digitally textured life world. Moreover, some teachers find PowerPoint an indispensible support in gathering and presenting material in an organized and visually compelling manner. However, if we think carefully about PowerPoint and the integration of other media technologies in schools, a few things become obvious. For one thing, digital technologies should not be viewed as neutral artifacts that can be added to the learning environment without epistemological and existential consequences. New media technologies provide not only new ways of teaching and learning, they simultaneously support the development of new habits of mind. As Stoner writes (2007), “These devices do not think for us, but direct, shape, and influence how we think and about what we think” (p. 357). And each new habit of mind will not necessarily be receptive to critical, imaginative or higher-order thinking. As Tufte (2003) claims, the new knowledge framework could actually erode other hard-won analytical skills. Therefore, it is important for teachers to do the following:
1. Ask questions of each new technology that enters the classroom. For example, what forms of teaching practice could this technology encourage? What ways of knowing are privileged when this technology is used? What approaches to learning could atrophy in its wake? What ways of being in the world are opened when this technology is in play? Which may be closed?
2. Look deep within each technology to see its hidden curriculum; that is, the new habits of mind and ways of being, thinking and doing in the world that the technology invites us to partake.
3. Articulate a pedagogy of technology—a normative stance oriented by a concern for the ecology of our students’ developing minds and bodies in the midst of today’s ubiquitous computing environment—to help guide the selection and use of digital technology in schools.
One possible remedy to PowerPoint’s threat of epistemic closure is to ensure that students have an opportunity to develop sound, supple thinking (and doing) habits through regular practice with a broad, richly diverse range of knowledge forms and discursive practices. Yiannis Gabriel (2008) recommends that teachers also become critical “paragrammatic” users of PowerPoint, willing to improvise, innovate and reconfigure as the knowledge context warrants, rather than sleepy “programmatic” users relying solely on the default suggestions offered by the software. Communications expert Dale Cyphert (2007) observes:
Especially in the classroom, where the students ought to be introduced to models of excellence, it is critical they learn to distinguish ineptitude from eloquence. When students are allowed to project their outline on screen as bullet points or provide de-contextualized images as illustrations of verbal arguments, they are not merely failing to emulate electronic eloquence. They are being allowed to use communication technologies to reduce traditional argument to inanity, and their peers will inevitably assume that these techniques are models of effective and appropriate public discourse. (187)
Providing exemplars of “electronic eloquence,” developing students’ communication and presentation practices (for example, argumentation, rhetoric and performance) in tandem with media design and technical production skills, and encouraging “subversive” (Squires 1999) uses of PowerPoint are three practical ways to stem the habit of unthinking acceptance of technology.
Finally, few of us fully appreciate the influential reach of digital media technologies in the corporeal, relational, temporal and spatial niches of our prereflective experiences and everyday practices. More patient, critical research is necessary for us to better understand the mediating influences of information and communication technologies in our lives. Meanwhile,
teachers would be wise to be more critical of digital technologies, attentive not only to what technologies do, but what they could undo; to what they say and what they cannot say.
Adams, C. 2006. “PowerPoint, Habits of Mind, and Classroom Culture.” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38, no. 4: 389–411. doi:10.1080/00220270600579141.
------2008. “The Poetics of PowerPoint.” Explorations in Media Ecology, 7, no. 4: 283–98. Retrieved from http://www.media-ecology.org/publications/ Explorations_Media_Ecology/index.html.
Byrne, D. 2003. “Learning to Love PowerPoint.” Wired, 11, no. 9 (September). Available online at www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt1.html (accessed August 25, 2010).
Columbia Accident Investigation Board. 2003. The CAIB Report: Volume 1 (August). Available online at www.nasa.gov/columbia/home/CAIB_Vol1.html. (accessed August 25, 2010).
Crang, M. 2003. “The Hair in the Gate: Visuality and Geographical Knowledge.” Antipode, 35, 238–43. doi: 10.1111/1467-8330.00321.
Cyphert, D. 2007. “Presentation Technology in the Age of Electronic Eloquence: From Visual Aid to Visual Rhetoric.” Communication Education, 56, no. 2: 168–92. doi: 10.1080/03634520601173136.
Gabriel, Y. 2008. “Against the Tyranny of PowerPoint: Technology-in-Use and Technology Abuse.” Organizational Studies, 20, no. 2: 255–76. doi: 10.1177/0170840607079536.
Levasseur, D. G., and J. K. Sawyer. 2006. “Pedagogy Meets PowerPoint: A Research Review of the Effects of Computer-Generated Slides in the Classroom.” The Review of Communication, 6, no. 1/2: 101–23. doi: 0.1080/15358590600763383.
Squires, D. 1999. “Educational Software and Learning: Subversive Use and Volatile Design.” Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences: Vol. 1. Available online at www.computer.org/portal/web/csdl/abs/proceedings/hicss/1999/0001/01/0001toc.htm. (accessed August 25, 2010).
Stoner, M. R. 2007. “PowerPoint in a New Key.” Communication Education, 56, no. 3: 354–81. doi: 10.1080/03634520701342052.
Tufte, E. R. 2003. The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press.
Catherine Adams is an assistant professor in the Department of Secondary Education, University of Alberta.
 In January 2003, while the Columbia was in the air, a PowerPoint slide was presented to NASA senior managers, who “considered the risk posed by tile damage on the shuttle wings. Key information was so buried and condensed in the rigid PowerPoint format as to be useless.” Ruth Marcus, “PowerPoint: Killer App?” The Washington Post, August 30, 2005.