A few weeks ago (January 25), Prof Maurice Amutambi wrote a scathing op-ed for Daily Nation about the poor quality of most university lecturers. I found myself smiling and nodding along the length of the piece as Amutambi skewered what passes for teaching in many university classrooms. But my jaw dropped when I got to his final recommendation: The use of PowerPoint slides to replace yellowing lecture notes.
The key distinction Prof Amutambi drew in his broadside was between lecturers who come to class mentally prepared but without lecture notes, and those who simply read from their notes year after year, without so much as updating them. This distinction, he argued, maps neatly onto the difference between those who force their students to think and analyse, and those who promote simple-minded regurgitation.
Having expertly diagnosed the disease, Prof Amutambi unfortunately went on to prescribe the wrong medicine. He complained of lecturers who read their notes verbatim, but how many of us have endured the same torture from shoddy presenters using PowerPoint?
Prof Amutambi asked, “Why read a paper to people who have copies?” One could ask the same question of many users of PowerPoint. If you are not adding value when you stand before an audience beyond what is written on your slides, why not just hand them out and sit down?
Not only does PowerPoint shift most presenters from lazily reading notes to lazily reading slides, but the medium itself tends to dumb us down. In his classic, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” Prof Edward Tufte argued that PowerPoint’s canned formats “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.”
The use of PowerPoint, Tufte continued, encourages us to think in superficial bursts, leaving out the narrative and nuance that describe the crucial causal relationships that (should) link our neat bullet points together.
Worse still from the perspective of anyone taking seriously Prof Amutambi’s critique, PowerPoint is “presenter-oriented, not content-oriented, not audience-oriented.” PowerPoint helps presenters to get organised; it is a “cure for the presentation jitters,” as the software’s promotional material once stated.
But if PowerPoint is a cure for the disorganised and nervous presenter, then it is no salve for the malady that Prof Amutambi identifies. Indeed, the problem of university lecturers is one of too much organisation and too much hubris.
By too much organisation, I do not mean too much analytical discipline. Rather, the class is organised according to rigid rules, with the lecture notes as imperial overlord: I speak, you write. There is no room for disorganised thought that might fuel creativity or innovation.
This is not only a rigid format, but one in which all knowledge flows from the lecturer, rather than drawing on the knowledge and experience of students.
If PowerPoint only reinforces the worst elements of the lecturer-centred classroom, what are the alternatives? Prof Amutambi offers one, which is a return to the prehistoric days of lecturing without excessive notes. Some international conference leaders today are actually forcing participants to power off their computers and speak in full sentences, taking a step away from the tyranny of ready-made technology.
But the really revolutionary step is to put students (or the audience) at the centre of classroom learning. It is hard to understand why professors feel the need to lecture for hours to classrooms of less than 15 students, as they do in some Kenyan post-graduate programmes. Small classes are a blessing; they should be exploited for discussion.
But even large lectures can be made more student-centred. I attended a dynamic lecture course with 500 students as an undergraduate: During each class, the professor would ask 5-10 questions, and call randomly on the audience for answers. This forced us all to prepare in case we were unlucky, but also brought unpredictable ideas from students themselves into the discussion each week.
What else can be done to put students back at the heart of teaching? Give them the yellow notes in advance, and ask them to come to class ready to debate.
To ensure that someone is always prepared, ask one or two students each week to take responsibility for starting a discussion based on the readings. Ask students to share their own synthesis of readings with their colleagues at the beginning of class. Request that students scan the newspapers for articles that bear some relationship to lecture topics and ask them to explain the relationship to their peers in class.
Whether professors use yellow notes or yellow slides, the essential matter is how they see their role when they stand before their students. If they hold forth only as lecturers, they will fail. If they see themselves as facilitators of student participation, discovery and understanding, we all win.
Dr Jason Lakin is a programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership. [email protected]