• September 4, 2015

When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom

College leaders usually brag about their tech-filled "smart" classrooms, but a dean at Southern Methodist University is proudly removing computers from lecture halls. José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts, has challenged his colleagues to "teach naked"—by which he means, sans machines.

More than any thing else, Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they're going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors. Lively interactions are what teaching is all about, he says, but those give-and-takes are discouraged by preset collections of slides.

He's not the only one raising questions about PowerPoint, which on many campuses is the state of the art in classroom teaching. A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire.

Students in the survey gave low marks not just to PowerPoint, but also to all kinds of computer-assisted classroom activities, even interactive exercises in computer labs. "The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," said the report. In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.

It's worth pointing out that PowerPoint presentations are generally better than many older classroom technologies, like slate chalkboards or overhead transparencies filled with hand-scrawled notes that students struggled to decipher. So computers have probably led to a slight improvement in teaching. But technology has hardly revolutionized the classroom experience for most college students, despite millions of dollars in investment and early predictions that going digital would force professors to rethink their lectures and would herald a pedagogical renaissance.

Mr. Bowen is part of a group of college leaders who haven't given up on that dream of shaking up college instruction. Even though he is taking computers out of classrooms, he's not anti-technology. He just thinks they should be used differently—upending the traditional lecture model in the process.

Here's the kicker, though: The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen's ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods. The lecture model is pretty comfortable for both students and professors, after all, and so fundamental change may be even harder than it initially seems, whether or not laptops, iPods, or other cool gadgets are thrown into the mix.

No Power in PowerPoint

Mr. Bowen delivers his pitch about "teaching naked" with the energy and confidence of a seasoned performer, which makes sense when you learn he has been on stage as a professional jazz musician for some 30 years. The goateed administrator sported a suit jacket over a dark T-shirt while giving a recent talk about his approach at a conference on "Emerging Technology Applications for Online Learning" put on by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group that encourages technology use in education.

Although he made a philosophical argument about the best way to engage students, he grounded it in his own classroom experiences using podcasts and video games about jazz history that he helped produce. He did not use PowerPoint, but he did use his laptop to show off one of his games, which lets students pick famous jazz musicians to play in a fictional supergroup.

His philosophy is that the information delivery common in today's classroom lectures should be recorded and delivered to students as podcasts or online videos before class sessions. To make sure students tune in, he gives them short online multiple-choice tests.

So what's left to do during class once you've delivered your lecture? Introduce issues of debate within the discipline and get the students to weigh in based on the knowledge they have from those lecture podcasts, Mr. Bowen says. "If you say to a student, We have this problem in Mayan archaeology: We don't know if the answer is A or B. We used to all think it was A, now we think it's B. If the lecture is 'Here's the answer, it's B,' that's not very interesting. But if the student believes they can contribute, they're a whole lot more motivated to enter the discourse, and to enter the discipline."

In short, don't be boring.

To help encourage his teaching theories, when Mr. Bowen arrived at Southern Methodist three years ago to become dean of its arts school, he decided to make some structural changes in 20 or so main classrooms.

He says most of those classrooms had two computers (a Mac and a PC), a DVD player, a VCR, and a tape deck, along with "one of those complicated control panels where you need a Ph.D. to figure it out."

Last summer Mr. Bowen had most of that gear removed—though he left in projectors so that professors could plug in their laptops and do PowerPoint presentations, if they must. He also took out the old desks and replaced them with tables and chairs that professors could move around to allow students to work in groups more easily.

One reason for the changes was financial. The classroom computers were old and needed an upgrade when Mr. Bowen arrived, so ditching them instead saved money. Plus, the move cut support costs—the school was able to eliminate one staff position for a technician who responded to calls from professors about the classroom systems.

To encourage the kind of technology use Mr. Bowen did want, the school gave every professor a laptop and set up support so they could create their own podcasts and videos.

Some professors have complained about lugging their laptops to class, but others have jumped in with both feet.

One of the fans is Maria A. Dixon, an assistant professor of applied communication. She's made podcasts for her course on "Critical Scholarship in Communication" that feature interviews she recorded with experts in the field. "Before, I was always complaining that I never had time to go in-depth and talk with my students," she says. "Now they come in actually much more informed about a subject than they would have if they had been assigned a reading."

Kevin Heffernan, an associate professor in the school's division of cinema and television, has also created podcast lectures—essentially narrated PowerPoint slide shows—for students to watch before class. During class he shows movie clips from his laptop and has students discuss them based on the background lectures.

"I don't have to explain to them how film censorship in America changed in 1968" during his class session on Midnight Cowboy, says Mr. Heffernan. "They have that information from the online podcast."

Student Resistance

Most students seem more attentive now, he says, though a few have been thrown off by the new system.

"Strangely enough, the people who are most resistant to this model are the students, who are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test," says Mr. Heffernan. "Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive. The only way we're going to stop that is by radically refiguring the classroom in precisely the way José wants to do it."

Ms. Dixon has seen similar reactions. "If you've spent years not speaking, you're going to be ticked off" when you are asked to participate, she says. "We have to move past that resistance."

The same sequence of events occurred at Miami University, in Ohio, where Mr. Bowen worked before coming to Southern Methodist, and which pioneered some of the same teaching strategies.

"Initial response is generally negative until students start to understand and see how they learn under this new system," says Glenn Platt, a professor of marketing at Miami who has published academic papers about the approach, which he calls the "inverted classroom." "The first response from students is typically, 'I paid for a college education and you're not going to lecture?'"

Whatever griping students do about being asked to participate in class, though, it's better than the boredom induced by a PowerPoint lecture, say fans of the new approach.

Sandi Mann, the British researcher who led the recent study on student attitudes toward teaching, argues that boredom has serious implications in an educational setting. Students who say they are frequently bored are more likely to do poorly on tests, according to some studies.

But Mr. Bowen and Mr. Platt see the stakes as even higher. Now that so many colleges offer low-cost online alternatives to the traditional campus experience, and some universities give away videos of their best professors' lectures, colleges must make sure their in-person teaching really is superior to those alternatives.

"Schools need to be thinking this way," says Mr. Platt. "It's where they're going to prove they add value to being there in the room, and not being online."

Moving to PowerPoint from transparencies was the easy part of upgrading teaching for the digital age. Now that an entire infrastructure for instant online delivery is widely in place, all that's left is the hard part of changing what happens in the classroom, which might need to stay a low-tech zone to survive.

College 2.0 explores how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com.


1. tech2doc - July 22, 2009 at 03:20 am

This will ONLY work if SMU hires and retains professors who can actually teach. I love the idea of professors being interactive in the classroom, but I don't see this being very practical for classes over ~30 students. SMU can afford to do this...many state universities cannot. However, he really doesn't have an understanding of what PowerPoint outlines do for lecturing. Instead of professors organizing their thoughts into concise, well-timed lectures...he runs the risk of them rambling on and make sure students will get distracted from the important topics from the session.. If the professors do place PPT outlines over the subject matter online, and elimate the need to purchase text books, then I think this makes excellent sense for smaller universities and those students who can afford to pay for the small student to teacher ratio. However, I hope larger universities don't attempt to implement this, especially in their 100+ student "intro" classes. It simply won't work.

2. kleinl - July 22, 2009 at 08:22 pm

Good teaching does not require knowledge of rocket science. The basic condition to accomplish it is for an instructor to know students personally in a live face to face setting and to engage them in dialogues about the subject and reading material. Good teaching, effective teching, is not a one way monologue. The process of teaching involves something more than having an information delivery system. When a college course gives primary responsibility to a machine to teach the course, than the long range effects will be to kill student interest, motivation to learn and poor achievement.

3. bmljenny - July 22, 2009 at 08:52 pm

Technology can be wonderful in the classroom if it is used well. Rather than assuming faculty won't use itwell and ripping out the technology, how about putting resources in place to help faculty succeed with technology?

4. wbrought - July 22, 2009 at 11:57 pm

PowerPoint is not the problem. It is how PPt is used. Too much text per slide, the lecturer reading his bullet points verbatim, graph after graph, and the absence of a creative approach loses the audience in minutes. The visual PPt content must illustrate and complement the speaker's message. As archaic as it seems, using graphics to teach with the occasional parable and memorable anecdote/historical note imbeds the intended content in the listener's mind forever. The truth is: there is a Gaussian distribution of teachers' abilty. There are great teachers/speakers and most (sadly) are average or worse (see: standard devation). Successful teaching is fact, entertainment and the expression of the teacher's passion. PPt can be an incredible tool when used correctly and ruinous if not. Meaningful teacher-student dialogue ALWAYS follows an excellent lecture - whether PPt or bare-bones educated improv. How does it go?: It's a poor workman that blames his tools.

5. chron7 - July 23, 2009 at 08:50 am

I like the idea of more discussion in the classroom, but teaching science is a different bag than cinema. And when I remember my best science instructors, whether it was rapid scribbling on a white board, overheads or Powerpoint, they all had some tool to help put the facts in order. There's just no way around it - when you need to teach a large amount of information, technology does play a role.

6. dpapasian - July 23, 2009 at 09:29 am

"It's worth pointing out that PowerPoint presentations are generally better than many older classroom technologies, like slate chalkboards or overhead transparencies filled with hand-scrawled notes that students struggled to decipher." Was this a finding of the survey or the opinion of the author? I'd agree that powerpoint is better than pre-made transparancies or walking into a classroom with the chalkboard already filled up, but the most common way I've seen chalkboards or overhead projectors used is as notes as the teacher discusses concepts or works through problem sets. This provides a dynamic element that is unmatched by powerpoint: questions can be raised while the notes are being created, and the answers to said questions can be incorporated into the slide/written on the chalkboard immediately. Without a doubt it's easier for the lecturer to run a powerpoint, but that's precisely because it's less dynamic. Legibility, in my experience, is rarely the issue that prevents comprehension!

7. fcslchron - July 23, 2009 at 09:40 am

Actual discussion in the classroom? What a concept! Students who are bored do worse on tests? What a surprise! Students may not want to discuss? Back to square one!

8. seigneur - July 23, 2009 at 10:09 am

A simple but I think important observation. Distinguish between the two classes of teaching/learning anywhere: formative and informative. It should be clear that careers correspond to either one of the two. The first category has been around for a long time, as preparing, forming individuals was the tacit aim of education. In recent decades, the second category seems to have taken over the rol of universities and colleges, which are now fulfilling the mere role of providers of information, i.e. data for a variety of new jobs and social and political demands. This goes a long way to explain what Mr Young is commenting here.

9. ueva3760 - July 23, 2009 at 04:52 pm

I think I'm missing something. They saved money by not replacing the laptops in the classrooms--but then bought a laptop for each faculty member. They saved money by eliminating the IT support person--but have set up support for faculty to create their own videos and podcasts. I don't see how that saves money. Giving faculty laptops is a good thing. Providing the support necessary to help them create course content is a good thing. But I just don't see how it saves money. What am I missing?

10. dgitting - July 24, 2009 at 10:56 am

Here's what you're missing:

11. jaysanderson - July 24, 2009 at 01:07 pm

"teach naked". How cute. Nothing new, but it does draw people to the story. Just teach well, regardless of which technology tool is or is not used. Shameless self promotion Jose.

12. dmaas354 - July 24, 2009 at 06:11 pm

I'm afraid Mr. Bowen is so lost in the 21st Century so as to not merit the dispatch of a search party. 21st Century literacy is not about power point or more effective ways to deliver a lecture. An absence of technology in the classroom is a disconnected classroom. No chance for an outside opinion. No chance for a piece of information NOT given you by your professor. No chance for the learners to publish. What Mr. Bowen is complaining about is not technology, but poor pedagogy. If all his professors do is create power points then, they are teaching poorly. How could any intellectual be anything but stimulated by the idea of being connected to billions of minds and thoughts during the learning process? Banning the tech is not the answer... learning to teach in ways that honor views other than just the professor's is.

13. rrhake2009 - July 25, 2009 at 08:20 pm

Jeff Young writes "More than any thing else, Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool." My own experience is that PowerPoint (PP) "lectures" *can* be structured so as to promote active student engagement and need not suffer from the faults of average PP presentations: bullets instead of logical outline form; improper use of charts, graphs, and tables; and reliance on PP's commercial "Auto-Layouts" and "chartjunk." As for "teaching naked," José Bowen appears to be dismissive of the advantages of "clickers" for encouraging interactive engagement and thus increasing student learning. Contrary to Jeff's heading "When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom," my own view is that "When Computers Enter Classrooms, Student Learning May Increase." For a 14 kB discussion-list expansion of the above please see http://tinyurl.com/nmqffw .

14. emmadw - July 27, 2009 at 04:59 am

"They saved money by not replacing the laptops in the classrooms--but then bought a laptop for each faculty member." At a guess, if you have more classrooms than faculty - it's a saving. Especially if those lecturers would generally also have a PC on their office desk. Now you just need 1 per lecturer, not 1 per classroom + 1 Per lecturer. (Whether or not they got the balance between portability & power is another matter!) My own personal view is, as others have pointed out; how the lecturer uses the technology - or absence of it - is likely to have the real impact on the student. It's the teaching skills that are vital; A good teacher can teach under a tree in the outback; a poor one can't teach in the most well equipped classroom in the world.

15. jddouglass - July 27, 2009 at 10:09 am

I think it's instructive to review a May 28, 2001 article from the New Yorker, "Absolute PowerPoint" (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/05/28/010528fa_fact_parker). Even the creators of PowerPoint, "software you impose on other people", feel that this ubiquitous program is commonly misused. Running a class discussion is far more engaging and fun than subjecting a roomful of people to PowerPoint slides. I am embarrassed to admit to being lazy on some occasions and using canned presentations that now seem to be as much of a textbook's packaging as test questions.

16. rdhclark - July 27, 2009 at 03:42 pm

I think the point of removing technology from the classroom is being overlooked for debating the merits of PPT, and technology in the classroom is read to mean PPT. The real debate is about technology and education, and the future of classroom teaching. If you think about it in terms of the future of classroom education, then you necessarily need to balance the merits of classroom teaching versus online teaching. That is, PPT and lectures are things that can be delivered almost or just as effectively online. If this is true, then a effective lecture with or without PowerPoint does not necessitate a student appearing on campus. However, I certainly do not advocate abandoning the classroom for an online curriculum. If we wish to continue with classroom teaching, then we need to emphasize the strengths of classroom teaching which is the immediacy of the environment and not technology. I mean that an instructor in a classroom can adjust the course of a class meeting as necessary whereas an online lecture or a lecture organized by PowerPoint is constrained by its very nature. I suggest, and I believe Dean Bowen would agree, that we move away from the technological classroom towards a classroom in which education is facilitated through dialogue rather than lecture. In a classroom in which the medium of teaching is dialogue, technology is both unnecessary and clumsy. Immediate and adaptable dialogue in a large group setting, say 10 to 25 students, is very difficult online with today's technology. In addition, I believe that teaching with dialogue is more effective than strict lecture in that it forces the interaction of students with his or her peers, the material at hand, and the professor. Looking to the future, classroom dialogue can never be replaced by static, online courses. As technology improves, it will be possible to hold virtual classrooms, but the essence of a class meeting will remain the same even with video feeds and microphones facilitating the dialogue.

17. renprof - July 27, 2009 at 07:35 pm

Powerpoint is great when used to create a *short* multimedia presentation that goes alongside the lectures. When it's a series of bulleted lists which are then read verbatim, it's painfully boring. No wonder students bring their laptops and surf as the professor drones on. I love using gadgets, but my best class is my most low-tech: Children's Literature. And sometimes I am deeply tempted to junk all the technology and assessment garbage, hand out some books, head for a park or a coffee shop, and ARGUE.

18. socslac - August 02, 2009 at 10:52 pm

PowerPoint is not the problem, it is a symptom of the larger problem of student disengagement, which has existed for decades (http://slac.wordpress.com/2009/08/02/powerpoint-podcasts-and-ending-the-illusion-of-student-reading/).

19. eelalien - August 03, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Ah, yes... PowerPoint "destroys memory and weakens the mind, relieving it of the work that makes it strong. It is an inhuman thing." Oh, sorry - that was actually Plato quoting Socrates on his view of the use of written symbolic language...in Greece ca. 500 B.C. (Phaedrus). I sense that educators such as Dean Bowen are not really interested in actual dialogue with their students, but would much rather be seen as the toga-clad sage imparting wisdom-filled pearls while their students sit silently in awe of their all-knowing mentor. Not going to happen... a quick Google search has just located a different point of view.

20. achierarias - August 04, 2009 at 01:30 pm

If, as Dr Bowen recommends, lectures can be kept out of the classroom and instead be delivered as podcasts ahead of the lesson, and if the podcasts need not feature the classroom lecturers themselves but could be authored by the top experts from other institutions, what kind of business model is going to evolve from this practice? Is it going to be based on Open Courseware, or will the top institutions sell podcast lectures by their top experts? His analogy with the text book market is probably adequate. http://library20.ning.com/group/academiclibariesandlibrary20web20/forum/topics/exploiting-the-competitive

21. ephotog - August 19, 2009 at 05:49 pm

To improve PPT, use it only when it is truly needed. One can temporarily turn PPT off by pressing either the B or W key (screen instantly goes to Black or White). Return to showing slides by pressing the B or W again. This "secret" feature minimizes distracting the audience with a previous slide, but seems unfamiliar to most people. Note that the keys you press may vary for computers set to other languages. I've heard that the period and comma keys also work.

22. megbc - October 10, 2009 at 12:16 pm

I was a student at a whole school where, not only did the school have all the latest in technology (laptops for teachers, computer programmes, projectors, smartboards etc) but, every student had their own personal laptop.
It was absolutely TERRIBLE for our learning.
We spent all our classes emailing or playing games. They provided an ever-ready excuse for assignments (my printer's not working, the file's missing, I can't connect to the network etc), which we all abused.
In terms of the teachers, some used the technology well and some didn't. A lot of the teachers did end up with the same-old boring PPT slide, although there were a few who truly used them in creative engaging ways. The smartboards, combined with the teachers laptop, had a lot of potential for interactive learning and sharing of ideas, when used properly.
Yet despite this, everyone who attended a particular class agrees it was the one they got the most out of. This particular class was one that was entirely discussion based. We were forced to be absolutely participating in the discussion in the moment, and it was fabulous. I probably got more out of that one class than all the others combined!

23. megbc - October 10, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Eelalien says: I sense that educators such as Dean Bowen are not really interested in actual dialogue with their students, but would much rather be seen as the toga-clad sage imparting wisdom-filled pearls while their students sit silently in awe of their all-knowing mentor.

I think that's a very unfair interpretation. In fact, he's saying exactly the opposite - rather than teachers standing at the front of the class and lecturing, he wants to foster an atmosphere of discussion where students also participate and contribute.

24. marlena21 - November 03, 2009 at 06:12 am

I think I'm missing something. They saved money by not replacing the laptops in the classrooms--but then bought a laptop for each faculty member. They saved money by eliminating the IT support person--but have set up support for faculty to create their own videos and podcasts. I don't see how that saves sildenafil money. Giving faculty laptops is a good thing. Providing the support necessary to help them create course content is a good thing. But I just don't see how it saves money. What am I missing?

25. cpatrick - December 23, 2009 at 11:54 am

Good teaching with technology is still good teaching just as bad teaching with technology is still bad teaching. As a 26-year veteran in front of university classes, I'm a strong advocate of using technology to assist and enhance the classroom. However, good teaching still requires much more than preparing PowerPoint slides. This article seems to miss that point somewhat.

26. njsmyth - December 23, 2009 at 12:32 pm

It's disappointing to me that some people think primarily of Powerpoint when they think of technology in teaching. Technology & interaction & experiential learning are not mutually exclusive processes. The innovative tech-savvy educators that I follow (on the national and international scene) ditched Powerpoint (except for the judicial use of graphics and pictures) years ago. I would have hoped the Chronicle would have dealt with this issue with more sophistication.

27. labronx - December 23, 2009 at 08:42 pm

Well,last year I mastered on-line technologies. This semester, I mastered some on-line applications. I user Powerpoint and Prez. I also use captivate and camtasia.

And as I write this, I am learning my new smartphone in the hope of writing applications to tutor students.

I did this after resolving to slow down my research program in engineering (was bringing 300K per year as a single PI) and switch over to a teaching focus.

I also found out that my local state senator is proposing to allow community colleges to award BA.

So, I think this guy is a reactionary fool who hasn't a clue as to what is coming down the pipe. Even email and internet is dead: students are on messaging and mobile devices.

The world moves forward, but he is going backward.

28. amnirov - December 24, 2009 at 02:11 pm

This article is so dumb it actually made me lose consciousness for a few minutes.

29. tcli5026 - December 24, 2009 at 02:50 pm

Here's the basic problem with the idea expressed in the article: it suggests an inescapable dichotomy between using Powerpoint (or other technology-based aids) and classroom discussion. No such dichotomy exists: you can do both, as I do. My classes are all heavily discussion-based, but I also use Powerpoint in all but my graduate seminars. My Powerpoint slides incorporate text, images, and video (I carefully select the latter); they are visually appealing and designed to highlight key points and generate discussion. This is not difficult to do. And, while I'm sure some of my students are bored, I'm able to keep the attention of almost all of my students, even a 4-hour evening class (meeting from 6-10).

30. sunday_moring - January 03, 2010 at 07:10 pm

* "kleinl,
Good teaching, effective teching, is not a one way monologue." Right on.

* On "discussion in the classroom", students have to learn the subject matter first then you can talk about discussion, so, probably discussion can kick in after giving one or two lectures (to discuss what they've learned or professor have taught...) ...

* "teaching and learning":
as seigneur pointed out: the two classes of teaching/learning anywhere: formative and informative. It takes the two distictive and very active roles of the key stakeholders... teachers and learners to make the learning most effective... currently it seems the focus is TOTALLY on TEACHERS/PROFESSORS, we seem to miss something critical here ...

Follow up on the above theme, knowledge delivery and proactive learning by motivated students has to work together like left arm and right arm...

*It seems that not every one is drawing the distinction between knowledge and information.

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