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COMMENTARY
The Technology Source
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 JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2002 the technology source
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My PowerPoint Summer

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It had been a good budget year with money allocated for new computers. Campus wisdom is to apply for funds when they become available, since future years may be lean. I requested a sleek laptop, having admired those used by visiting speakers. 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. So it happens that new technology insinuates itself into campus culture: diffusion from visiting speakers and graduate students to senior faculty.

Getting started in this new format was not difficult using a self-paced tutorial from the campus Teaching Resources Center. I also had some hand-holding 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. Having received this assistance, I felt sufficiently comfortable about creating PowerPoint images for my classes, with the idea of seeking further help editing them at some future date.

PowerPoint Initiation: Technical Advantages

My early experiences largely involved capturing images from the Web for PowerPoint presentations. Soon enough, however, 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—proving 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.

In turn, my use of scanning technology opened up a whole field of possibilities. I went through a scanning frenzy, spending weekends at the office digitizing slides and textbook illustrations. I had previously criticized textbooks with scores of colored photographs that added more to cost than to 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 because I had been instructed to scan materials at high resolution. I subsequently learned how to reduce file size.

In the past, 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; instead, I typically 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.

Copying for classroom use is not a new activity for me, but what has changed is the ease of scanning and the quality of the output. Previously, my hand-made slides were amateurish, poorly cropped, sometimes crooked, dark, and cluttered with extraneous material since no editing was possible. I also lacked a good way to integrate graphics and text. Now, even without knowing the electronic bells and whistles, I can make professional quality A/V materials.

There were several unexpected benefits of my PowerPoint summer. I culled my large slide collection. 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 also 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. With my newfound skill, the image pool appears limitless; if I cannot find something appropriate in a book, I can search the Web.

Copyright and Fair Use

Occasionally problems arose when I gave visiting lectures at other campuses and used their computers for my presentation. Some colleagues requested my permission to keep my slides for their use. It was necessary for me to point out that I did not own the copyright to all the images.

My use of these images was restricted to instructional purposes, which falls under the "fair use" doctrine. However, this exemption may not continue if I grant student requests to put my lectures online. I may have to password protect my course page—something that, up to now, I have seen no need to do. I found several online sources providing guidance on copyright issues, and learned that the concept of "fair use" is currently being scrutinized by administrators and challenged in court cases.

At present the situation is reminiscent of the legal issues raised by other types of copying. Back in the 1950s, when there were just a few slow, noisy copy machines making 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. The time may not be too distant when scanners carry similar warnings.

Pedagogical Issues

Meanwhile, the temptation to incorporate PowerPoint graphics into my lectures has increased tremendously. 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.

Yet it is debatable 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. Because concrete referents can undermine the very basis of metaphor—the transfer from one realm to another—such illustrations may actually hinder the learning of abstract concepts. Personal space is not literally an aura or a soap bubble, it is only figuratively similar.

As in the case of other resources, the important pedagogical issue is whether the new technology enhances student learning. I must always ask myself if I am merely producing visual clutter that decreases conceptual thinking; I want my students to be actively engaged with the material rather than sit glassy-eyed watching pretty pictures. It is a situation I have also faced when using other audio-visual materials. 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 do not want this to happen with my PowerPoint presentations. In order to encourage active learning, I now reserve some slides for in-class exercises.

There have been concerns that the use of PowerPoint creates a less personal atmosphere during 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 50-minute lecture without time for student comments or questions, or a film viewing that simply concludes with a "class dismissed" notice. In contrast, my use of PowerPoint is modest: it accompanies rather than replaces my lectures, providing 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.

From another perspective, there have been many criticisms of the hegemony of the lecture method in higher education—the "Sage on the Stage." Sadly I have not seen a better pedagogical 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 do not know if today's expensive projection systems designed to accommodate laptop computers will suffer the same fate.

However, for the present I accept the compactness and crispness of PowerPoint for single presentations. I have used it to prepare talks for professional meetings, and I have used it successfully with students in a short course. I have come to view PowerPoint not as a substitute for my customary lecture/discussion course format, but as a more sophisticated AV system.

Conclusion

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When I sum up what I have accomplished, I can point to some significant advances. I updated my A/V materials, found new material, and successfully integrated graphics within my lectures. Although I could have done these things without the stimulus of PowerPoint, it is unlikely that I would have. New technology can sometimes 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 a sentient part of the process, I cannot foresee the future of this evolutionary trend. 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�my need to justify an expensive new computer, my curiosity about changing technology, and my desire to improve the format and quality of my visual presentations.

Despite my achievements, I feel part of a larger experiment that lacks direction, coordination, and evaluation. After four decades of college teaching, I am still a grunt in the trenches rather than a strategist at general staff headquarters. I am not even sure that there are headquarters for this campaign.


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This article may be reproduced and distributed for educational purposes if the following attribution is made under the title and author's name:

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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;=956. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

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