Powering Pedagogy

Margaret Don offers solutions to the problems arising from using PowerPoint in the language classroom

Anyone who has created a PowerPoint presentation knows that it is easier than recording your favorite television program. Still, in education, there seems to be a line drawn between those who can use PowerPoint and those who can’t. In realityn this is nonsense. The real lines are between those who have used it and those who haven’t. PowerPoint has the potential to be an effective educational tool. However, when not used appropriately, it can and should raise educational concerns that need to be addressed.

Potential Problems

Essential to effective instruction is effective communication of ideas. Traditionally, communication has been passed from teacher to student in the form of verbal lectures and in-class activities. A lecture might include use of the blackboard or transparencies to highlight main ideas. Modern lectures can also include new technologies and software like PowerPoint to communicate ideas. Yet, while it does have advantages that the traditional lecture and blackboard do not, these advantages are only relevant if and when PowerPoint is used appropriately.

When we communicate, our words, along with gestures, body language, and facial expression, convey meaning. During a PowerPoint presentation, students focus on the screen in front of the class. The instructor is normally on the sidelines. This means that students lose part of the communication, and for many students, the absence of nonverbal communication can make a difference in learning, especially in the language classroom.

PowerPoint is also best used in a partially darkened room which inhibits communication. For example, if instructors wish to comment on the presentation, they stand where all students can see them. However, with the room darkened, it is more difficult to really engage in communication, because it is more difficult to see the person speaking and we are much more accustomed to communicating in the light than in the dark. Communicating in semidarkness can be disorienting, because part of the nonverbal communication is lost.

In addition, a PowerPoint presentation can include creative features such as color, graphics, audio, and flying words that enter from different directions and at different speeds. Unless these features are used appropriately, they can end up distracting students from the content rather than enhancing it.

Finally, when lecturing or engaging students in traditional discussion, a teacher has the opportunity to look at his or her students to see how they are responding. It is apparent when students are engaged and understanding and when they are not. If the students are not responding, the instructor knows that another approach or additional explanation is necessary. However, with PowerPoint this is not always true. With everyone focused on the screen (even the instructor), this silent, yet vital communication is lost, and the content might be as well.

With students no longer fully focusing on the instructor and instructors no longer fully focusing on their students, the end result can be less-effective communication and teaching rather than enhanced understanding and learning when PowerPoint is not used effectively.

Instructor expertise
If PowerPoint is not used appropriately, instructors’ subject-matter expertise and the ability to convey that subject matter to others may be lost. When PowerPoint slides only present information that students have already read or can read on their own, it does not matter who is reading the lines. Presentations should offer additional information and not act as lists to be recited by the teacher.

Administrative pressures and modeling behavior
Some schools consider the integration of technology so important that they pressure teachers (often through stigmatization) to use software. This often results in poor-quality presentations that do little to enhance learning. There is an underlying problem as well — everything that instructors do serves as behavior to be modeled by students. If students see their instructors using PowerPoint inappropriately, they will most likely do the same when it is their turn to use it.

Likewise, if teachers become complacent and use PowerPoint to “teach” rather than engaging the students in interactive activities and communication, the students may later model this behavior in their own class presentations. Students need to develop good presentation skills to serve them later in life, and if they imitate the inappropriate manners of their instructors, they are less likely to develop such skills.

Inappropriate use of PowerPoint can result in compromised communication in the classroom, ineffective teaching by instructors, loss of instructor expertise in the classroom, and poor instructional modeling. Measures need to be taken to ensure that it enhances the educational experience rather than detracts from it.

The simple rule is to only use PowerPoint when it is appropriate to the subject matter being taught and only when it can result in superior learning outcomes. If the same information can be delivered effectively by traditional means, then there is no reason to use it, especially knowing that it can compromise communication.

So, the first question that needs to be asked is “Will a PowerPoint presentation enhance student learning?” If the answer is yes, the next question should be “How?” If you are pleased with the answer, then proceed carefully, not with the PowerPoint presentation, but with the lesson design.
The next step is to design a lesson that will optimally prepare the students to get the most from the PowerPoint experience. What information will they need before the presentation? How will they get this information? What parts of the presentation will be most important and crucial? What information and elements will the presentation include? What follow-up activities will the students participate in? What are the expected learning outcomes? Will the students be provided enough information and practice to achieve learning outcomes?

If an instructor has a good lesson plan in place that supports the presentation, this can be effective in counteracting the loss and/or compromise of delivery. In addition, an instructor needs to be sure to directly address the class before the presentation to explain what information the students will be receiving and to what aspects they should pay special attention. The stage needs to be set, so that the students are ready to receive the information. Subsequently, follow- up activities are necessary to reinforce the ideas that have been presented and to ensure that students understand key points and concepts.

So, let’s assume that an instructor has decided that the use of PowerPoint is appropriate and should result in enhanced student learning and that a good lesson plan is in place. The next step is to begin creating the actual presentation. In order to do this successfully, the skilled PowerPoint presenter will pull in the reins and not be seduced by the ability to use flying words, sounds, and graphics. The objective is to communicate information, not wow the viewer. While these features are fun to use, they should be used sparingly, and again, only when appropriate. It is important that instructors model good and proper usage of PowerPoint, so that when students use it, they will have good models to work from. It is also important to only use graphics and sounds that will enhance learning and to use flying words in order to pace information delivery, not to put on a show.
Administrative support and policy can also promote exemplary usage of PowerPoint. First, if administration is going to require (or even encourage) instructors to use it, they should provide proper training in how to use it. This involves more than sending teachers to a tutorial website or even to an offsite or on-site training. The tutorial or training will likely be adequate to teach the instructor how to use the software, but what it probably won’t do is show them how to use it appropriately in an educational setting to enhance learning.

Administrators and instructors need to be schooled in what appropriate educational use of PowerPoint is and how it is achieved. The best way to do this is to show them two or three example presentations, one that enhances learning, one that does not, and one that is middle of the road. The presentation that does not enhance learning will employ inappropriate usage of graphics, sound, and flying words and will be not much more than a summary of information already available in the book. It may or may not be in the target language, and some screens will include too much information. The middle-of-the-road presentation will use some PowerPoint features well and others not so well. For example, it might use color well but use distracting features. It will present and communicate ideas well, but will most likely not include any additional information for students. It may or may not be in the target language and will be somewhat interactive. The presentation that enhances learning will employ PowerPoint features very well and appropriately. For example, it will use flying words only when necessary to control the amount of information provided at one time, and it will use graphics appropriately and link to websites that offer information beyond what the student has already been exposed to in the classroom or textbook.

Administrative policy can enhance proper usage as well. For example, instead of simply mandating that all teachers know how to use PowerPoint and specifying that it is strongly encouraged, administration should try to inspire instructors to want to use it. One way of doing this is to begin small. First, provide examples of good use and encourage instructors to follow them in their classrooms. When instructors see that PowerPoint really can enhance student learning, they are more likely to want to use it, and wanting to use it is the first step toward integrating appropriate usage. Administration can next provide appropriate training and then encourage instructors through incentives to produce one quality lesson plan incorporating a PowerPoint presentation that they can not only use in their own class but also share with other instructors. If each instructor is making a concentrated effort to produce one quality lesson with the software, it is more likely the presentation will be of good quality and will work well when used. This in turn should motivate the instructor to want to use it again. Success is motivating. Likewise, when good presentations developed by other instructors are used, this also serves as good motivation. The result could very well be a department or school setting where instructors are learning and sharing with each other how best to use PowerPoint.

When to Use PowerPoint in Language Instruction
Let’s analyze three different presentations addressing the use of the present progressive for effectiveness, and see why an instructor would want to use this presentation in the language classroom.

Example One
Popular textbooks typically used at the tertiary level offer many supplementary materials, including PowerPoint presentations for each chapter. These presentations are taken directly from the book and include the same images, explanations, and activities as the book.

After looking at the entire nine frames of the presentation addressing the present progressive, a group of language instructors determined they would not want to use this presentation in the classroom for the following reasons: It can be used by the students later and studied at their own pace if made available on Blackboard or any other similar platform; it includes too much information on individual frames; it is too grammar-driven; it offers nothing new or beyond what is already available to the students in the book; it is not engaging; the only activity is an activity that the students already have in the book; it is not communicative; the presentation is not in the target language; and the students do not produce with the target language until the very end.

Example Two
This uses more PowerPoint features and the target language. Six frames — the entire presentation — are shown on page 23. A group of language instructors decided they would want to use this for the following reasons: It uses the target language from the very beginning; it employs good use of color to point out grammatical function; it includes student interaction at the end; and this interaction is in addition to and different from the textbook activities. They would not want to use this presentation for the following reasons: It is too busy with flying words that are distracting; the blue background is distracting and makes it a bit difficult to see the text; at times there is too much on one screen; there is new vocabulary, but it is not introduced to the students before the activity; and there is very little interaction.

Example Three
This example includes a cultural component as well as the present progressive and also has a pre-activity and a post-activity (see across). Four sample frames from the entire 13-frame presentation are also shown below. A group of language instructors chose to use it for the following reasons: It uses the target language from the first frame and throughout the entire presentation; it is interactive throughout the entire presentation; it is clear; none of the frames is crowded with too much information; it uses images that make the grammar understandable and alive; the images are appealing to students, are varied, and provide a visual connection to the language; it includes a valuable cultural component that often instructors do not have time for in their lesson plans; it introduces new vocabulary which students are prepared to use with a pre-activity; and it includes a post-activity that reinforces the lesson and allows for student personal expression with use of the grammar point presented.

Theory of Primary Focus and PowerPoint
In world language instruction, an exchange of communication is one of the primary goals. We as instructors, and students as classmates, are alive, present, tangible, communicative beings, and when teaching or practicing a language, there is an exchange of energy and communication between the instructor and the students or amongst classmates. This exchange of energy and communication is precisely what makes teaching, learning, and practicing worthwhile, dynamic, and effective. And when students are interacting with the instructor or with one another the primary focus is on communicating with another, live person.

When using PowerPoint, the primary focus shifts away from a live person, to an inanimate screen, and if we make this shift of primary focus away from us (or away from a paired or group activity), the new focus (Focus2) needs to improve and/or enhance the traditional learning experience. That is to say, it must go beyond written text, verbal explanation, or a typical classroom activity. Otherwise, what is the point? If we can do it just as well or even better with a book, handout, blackboard, designated pair, or group activity, then why not? Why include the element of technology which shifts the focus away from live communication to focus on a pull-down screen if it does not enhance student learning? There is no reason to. To use technology for the sake of technology only uses valuable instructor time when developing lesson plans that include technology, and in many cases it puts undue stress to “compete” or “keep up” on the instructor. Thus, if we are going to shift the primary focus from a person to a projected PowerPoint presentation, the Focus2 should always add to the learning experience in a way that traditional instruction cannot.

As technology continues to advance in our schools, we as instructors and administrators have the responsibility to make sure that it is used well and appropriately in pedagogy. To simply jump on the technological bandwagon without putting much thought into how it is used or why it is used, or if it enhances teaching and learning, is a mistake. This is true, of course, not only with PowerPoint, but with all technological software and platforms. As we continue to progress further with technology in education, let’s make sure that it is pedagogy driving the technology and not vice versa.

Margaret Rose Don, EdD, is adjunct professor of Spanish at the University of San Diego, California. Her specializations include the appropriate use of technology in foreign-language instruction, and her research focus has been on Spanish online instruction.