It is important to reflect upon the epistemology of our pedagogy. We live in a pedagogic realm in which the lecture has been regarded as “an accomplishment—bringing together a very particular constellation of speaker, space, technology, audience and attention” (Crang, 2003, p. 242). In the lecture setting, the social roles, expectations, and power relations at play merit our reflection. The encompassing “performative aspects” of PowerPoint and how they “lend authority to the speaker” (Driver, 2003, p. 229) are deserving of reflection too.
Accordingly, we now explore three aspects of the interaction between PowerPoint technology and its “spaces and audiences” (Driver, 2003, p. 229)—first, whether or not PowerPoint serves as a crutch for many presenters, and second, whether or not it has a bad effect on the message by becoming “a tool to separate the presenter from the audience and the message” (Coursey, 2003, para. 5). Third, we also explore the thesis that the visuality of PowerPoint presentations (which should enrich the message) is becoming THE message and that less of an audience's attention is being applied to a speaker's discussion of relevant content (DuFrene & Lehman, 2004, p. 84).
There are divergent views about whether the teacher or presenter using PowerPoint is still the main actor and a Socratic-type figure in a learning play. One view is that “PowerPoint is teacher-centred. It puts the instructor at the center of the action” (Creed, 1997). As such, (s)he is a narrator tasked with framing the message or performance, both literally and perceptually. Opposed to this, is the view that the use of PowerPoint has reduced the role of the presenter to that of a stagehand (Blokzijl & Naeff, 2004) in which (s)he has been “effaced” by the visuality of the PowerPoint slide show (Crang, 2003, p. 243). Consistent with this view, the role of the lecturer or presenter has changed: (s)he is a necessary, but annoying distraction, providing Muzak accompaniment to the lecture by means of an often “disembodied voice” (Crang, 2003, p. 243). Indeed, Nunberg (1999, p. 330) drew attention to the argument that the presenter is no longer needed because PowerPoint slides “have begun to take on a life of their own, as if they no longer needed talking heads to speak for them.” In this vein, Tufte (2003a) argued that “rather than supplementing a presentation, [PowerPoint] has become a substitute for it” (p. 3).
Our view is that whether a PowerPoint presenter is the centre of attention or more of a stagehand will be a function of the communication ability of the presenter. Good presenters will most likely still be the centre of attention, using PowerPoint appropriately as a valuable communication aid to buttress their rhetoric. Poor presenters, such as nervous freshman students making their first assessable class presentation, will most likely be stagehands, with PowerPoint used as a dominating prop and their visual presence barely discernible.
What are the implications of interposing a PowerPoint presentation between an instructor and students? When we taught without PowerPoint or led a case discussion without PowerPoint or acted Socratic-like without PowerPoint, our relationship with students was unmediated and more human, more direct, less pre-meditated and less structured. The pedagogy involved depended on the particular situation, the process of interchange, the verbal and nonverbal communication, the repartee, the facial expressions, and the multitude of things that unfold during unmediated human relationships and dialogue. These are all “immediacy behaviours” which include such non-verbal actions as “eye contact, smiling, movement, adopting relaxed body positions, vocal expressiveness” and have been found to have a positive effect on student learning (see Hartnett, Römcke, & Yap, 2003, p. 315). But when we subcontract our teaching to PowerPoint presentations, often we cannot see the faces of students. The ambient light is often low, and the focus of students is on the PowerPoint screen. It is not as easy to engage in effective “immediacy behaviours” with students, person-to-person, and to interest them vitally in the pursuit of knowledge.
Are educators at risk of falling into Freire's (1993) “banking education” trap by implicitly regarding education as an activity in which students simply withdraw dollops of something called “knowledge” in much the same way that money is withdrawn from a bank account? As a community of educators and students, are we acquiescing to an unthinking acceptance of PowerPoint's imposition of a conduit metaphor to frame (educational) communication in a way in which “language transfers thought to others” using words as a conduit (Reddy, 1993, p. 167)? However, note that Reddy (1993) also cautioned that considering communication as a conduit metaphor “is leading us down a technological and social blind alley. That blind alley is mass communications systems coupled with mass neglect of the internal, human systems responsible for nine-tenths of the work in communicating” (p. 188). In this article we do not pursue the possible connection between the widespread deployment of PowerPoint in education and the implicit framing of educational communication by the conduit metaphor, but, at least according to Reddy, this merits further study.
What do we do if an unplanned, yet fruitful, discussion demands that a PowerPoint presentation be stopped dead in its tracks? Can we allow conversation and discussion to meander down a road with no known ultimate destination? Is it possible to ever discontinue a PowerPoint presentation or, in the best tradition of the theatre, must the “show go on?” Must a pre-planned schedule be followed rigidly because of an unwritten convention of PowerPoint that “no matter what, get through all the slides.” Or perhaps, even more chillingly, has the PowerPoint slideshow become the curriculum?
Teachers, public speakers, and business seminar presenters are rhetoricians, engaged in acts of persuasion: they seek to persuade or to educate, and to use PowerPoint as a visual aid to make “the logical structure of an argument more transparent” (Parker, 2001, citing Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of psychology, Steven Pinker, p. 6). Yet the knowledge most have of how to use PowerPoint effectively extends little beyond the general guidelines for using visual aids that have been outlined by Berko, Wolvin and Ray (1997) and Andrews and Baird (2000). Few lecturers or business seminar presenters seem adept at melding their verbal oratory with “visuality as an element of rhetorical invention” (Cyphert, 2004, p. 81). And, as pointed out by Parker (2001), “instead of human contact” PowerPoint gives us a “human display ... we present to each other, instead of discussing” (p. 5, italics added). We exacerbate this problem by committing the “sin of triple delivery, where precisely the same text is seen on the screen, spoken aloud, and printed on the handout in front of you” (Parker, 2001, p. 5).
There is a strong argument that the problems of PowerPoint arise from the contempt of many presenters for fundamental rhetorical principles and from their failure to ask such questions: “What does my audience need to know? What point am I trying to make? How do I make that point clearly, thoroughly, transparently? And is the organization of information effective for making my point clear and understandable?” (Shwom & Keller, 2003, p. 4). Those who overlook these principles deserve “banishing into the wilderness of incoherence [because they] often lose their way in a thicket of points and sub-points [and compel a reader to] work too hard to decipher meaning” (Shwom & Keller, 2003, pp. 4–5). One key rhetorical principle was proposed by Shwom and Keller (2003) for following by PowerPoint authors:
On each bullet point slide ... address only one main idea: a single discrete category with sub-items consistently related to that category. Do not use bullet points to present a sequence of ideas. In other words, use bullets to present inductive reasoning, not deductive reasoning (p. 8).
Additionally, many PowerPoint presenters fail to appreciate how rhetorical culture has been changed by PowerPoint communication. According to Cyphert (2005):
The whole notion of having a linear outline is actually a holdover from some pretty traditional—some would say archaic or even xenophobic—rhetorical presumptions. The sad thing is that PowerPoint offers tremendous tools for a speaker, but very, very few get past those dad-gummed bullet points. (response to question 10).
The linearity of PowerPoint and its pesky bullet points hold the prospect of seeming “too slow and boring to students used to MTV, instant messaging and MP3s” (Delaney, 2005, p. R4, citing Tom Wilson, a technology-integration specialist at Hopkins High School, Minnetonka, Minnesota). Indeed, it suggests that Reddy's (1993) conduit metaphor has been given new breath by PowerPoint and is alive and well.
The metaphors that are associated with the use of PowerPoint merit reflection because the stance educators adopt with regard to the advantages and disadvantages of PowerPoint probably reflect the metaphors that imperceptibly fashion their attitudes. In assessing the way to use PowerPoint, it is important for educators to contemplate the fundamental metaphors that define their approach to teaching. We can identify four major metaphors that influence the way faculty members conceive teaching, by drawing on Fox (1983) and Lucas (2002). These are described in Amernic and Craig (2004, p. 357) as:
the transfer conception: knowledge is a commodity to be transferred from one vessel to another, a concept consistent with Reddy's conduit metaphor (1993);
the shaping conception: teaching is usually directed to developing the minds of students;
the travelling conception: the teacher leads students into new territory and, in doing so, gains new perspectives, too; and
the growing conception: the teacher is a nurturer.
Most users of PowerPoint appear to conceive their goals as educators to involve merely a one-way transmission of knowledge, rather than to promote the construction of knowledge and the analysis and synthesis of knowledge (Ramsden, 1992). This transfer, transportation, or conduit model of communication seems to fashion thinking by educators about PowerPoint: they conceive PowerPoint presentations as moving meaning across space in a way in which “the delivery, as opposed to the formulation of meaning” (Angus, 1998, p. 21) is regarded as most important.
A major pedagogical issue with PowerPoint presentations is that receivers are “passively engaged” rather than “actively engaged.” Jones (2003) discussed the danger of making PowerPoint presentations available to students. Such practice is said to encourage “students to sit passively through the session since they may perceive they have ‘got the notes’” (p. 5). Tufte (2003b) outlined the problems involved very strongly. They are summarized by Simons (2005) as follows:
It [PowerPoint] locks presenters into a linear, slide-by-slide format that discourages free association and creative thinking. It imposes artificial and potentially misleading hierarchies on information ... breaks information and data into fragments, making it more difficult to see the logical relationships between different sets of data. It encourages over-simplification by asking presenters to summarize key concepts in as few words as possible—e.g., bullet points—which can lead to gross generalizations, imprecise logic, superficial reasoning and, quite often, misleading conclusions. It imposes an authoritarian presenter/audience relationship rather than facilitating a give-and-take exchange of ideas and information. (p.5)
Some might argue that Tufte's case is exaggerated, that PowerPoint presentations can be paused for “contemplative effect, and they can serve as a springboard for conversation” (Cyphert, 2005, question 13). Nonetheless, many PowerPoint presenters seem to embrace the transfer conception of education, in preference to the shaping, travelling, and growing conceptions. “If everyone has set their remarks in stone ahead of time (all using the same templates) then there is little room for comments of one to build upon another, or for a new idea to arise collaboratively ... Homogeneity is great for milk, but not for ideas” (Norvig, 2003, p. 344). Educators using PowerPoint should give greater emphasis to working as partners with students, in designing learning activities with them, so that they encourage students to identify new ways of thinking for themselves. Most importantly, therefore, educators should reflect upon the explicit and implicit metaphors that help form the foundation of the cognitive world that is drawn upon in their use of PowerPoint.