Tuesday, September 1, 2009

higher education, technologically speaking

The other day, I was remembering back to the world history class I took my freshman year of high school. Each afternoon during fourth period, I'd bring my navy blue Five Star spiral notebook to class, I'd sit down in my alphabetically assigned seat, and I'd take notes for fifty minutes. Straight notes. There was no PowerPoint, there were no laptops, and there was no downloading of anything from the Internet. I paid attention for those fifty minutes because there was nothing else to do. I wrote a lot down; I'm sure I had my fair share of hand cramps. Occasionally my teacher would give us a handout with a very general outline of the topics for the day if we were learning something particularly confusing, and we frequently had map handouts to better visualize all the European countries and empires that were constantly changing throughout the centuries. It was a lot of material, and it was really hard, but it was manageable. After all, what we could learn was limited to the amount of material that could be conveyed (and written down) in fifty minutes a day, five days a week. The rest of my teachers at good old GHS all worked pretty much the same way: there were either straight handwritten notes or outline handouts. We all liked the outlines, of course, because they were friendlier to the fingers and there was less of a chance that if you dozed off for a minute you'd miss something major.

Fast forward to college. A lot of my classes worked the same way, but a lot of the teachers had begun to use PowerPoint slides instead of outlines. This was not a huge deal; thanks to Samford's generous free-printing-for-all policy, we'd stop at any one of the several conveniently-located computer labs around campus and print the slides out before class, taking handwritten notes on them in the same way as we would for an outline.

Fast forward one more time: medical school. With the exception of a few professors who still provide printed handouts, PowerPoint slides are the norm for presentations. This is perfectly fine with me. However, it kind of concerns me a little bit because I feel like technology is destroying some of the checks and balances on education that were previously in place. Here are some examples:

1. With PowerPoint, there can be a much greater volume of material taught in a short class time. Efficiency at its best, you say? Not exactly. With a nearly unlimited amount of hard drive space at their disposal, educators no longer have any incentive to remove extraneous information and keep it concise. In addition, it's all too easy for them to breeze past several slides with only a brief mention of "you can memorize this one on your own time." One of the lectures in my otherwise-very-well-taught class at Tulane this summer was - wait for it - 251 slides long. Two hundred and fifty-one slides for a three-hour lecture on the female reproductive system. Is this necessary? Absolutely not. I'm not trying to be a whiner and say I don't like to learn; in fact, just the opposite: I learn a lot more from a concise, well-organized lecture than a sprawled-out, unfocused one that takes up an entire binder by itself when printed out.

2. Organization falls by the wayside when material is presented in a slide format. While great for presentation, slides are crummy for putting smaller pieces of information together in the big picture. Outlines put information into perspective and highlight the relative importance of different topics. Slides are like pieces of a puzzle, and even if they are in order, it's difficult to see the big picture when you're looking at boxes on a page.

3. Since our notes are given to us in a digital format, it should mean that we have a myriad of options of how to take notes and study, right? In a sense, that's true. Last year, our lectures were usually posted the night before to allow people to print them if they so chose. This year, however, the lecture files are often not posted until the teacher walks into the classroom five minutes before lecture is scheduled to begin. I prefer to annotate the PowerPoints during class on my computer using Microsoft OneNote and then print them out later to study, so normally this is not a big issue for me (unless we're having class in the hospital where there are no power outlets - but that's a different story). But it is a major annoyance for those who prefer to print their notes. I see no reason why this is necessary. I highly doubt the professors are scrambling to put together their PowerPoint files at 8:55 in the morning before class at 9, so I see no other explanation (other than laziness or forgetfulness on the part of our dear educators) why they could not be posted the night before, or at the very least earlier that morning.

Don't get me wrong; I think technology is amazing and I'm glad professors have such modern methods of distributing information and lecture materials to students. But there's something to be said about the checks and balances that existed a few years ago - when teachers' enthusiasm to impart large amounts of knowledge was balanced not only by a very real limit on the amount of paper available, but also on the speed of their students' scribbling fingers.

Happy September, everybody.


Anna said...

I used to love powerpoint....now I almost hate it b/c of med school. There's no filtering system and way to much freedom to just through stuff in.

The path department has been better about it...perhaps they could teach other departments...

Andrew said...

Not gonna say much because I totally agree about powerpoint... but hah, this was a great throwback to that World History class. I learned a lot in there actually. Remember those french revolution newspapers we had to do? :)

I learn better through writing notes than powerpoint, definitely.

John said...

I seem to remember a few powerpoint presentations in my freshman world history class. They were few and far between, and they were displayed on a laptop that he set on a desk in the front of the room, so I actually preferred not having them. He must have been just starting to experiment with powerpoint when I had him. Remember his slide projector? he would have someone sit near the projector and switch to the next slide whenever they heard a particular sound.