By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

PowerPoint and a new generation of visual learners

In some executive education courses I just finished teaching, I made probably the biggest change I have made in my teaching approach for 20 years. In a case-based class, very heavily dependent on class discussion rather than pre-programmed lecture material, I have introduced Microsoft PowerPoint. I don't mean PowerPoint 1.0 with bullet lists in text, but the kind of PowerPoint that younger faculty members are now using all the time: PowerPoint that is filled with photos, images, font of varying size and colors, and so-called “animation” where text and visuals appear sequentially rather than all at once, or zoom in and out on the slide.

Since this is still a discussion-based class, the presentations don’t dominate the class like they would in a lecture, but the way I have done it, they are definitely part of the class.

The fact that I finally concluded that I needed to do this reflects, I think, an important change in the way young people growing up now are learning and interacting with the world, which doubtless has significance beyond academia.
It appears that students’ constant exposure to lots of visual stimulation, from video games to more visually intense ads and movies (made possible by digital special effects) to the gradual substitution of texting for talking, is turning the generation growing up into people who interact with the world more visually – including especially reacting to pictures, and to images that change rather than staying static.  My impression is that, more and more, professors need to accompany their spoken words with words on a PowerPoint and preferably by pictures as well, or students don’t register them. 

I first became aware of this change several years ago, when PhD candidates for junior faculty jobs at the Kennedy School started using very sophisticated PowerPoints with images and animation. I realize that I remember some of the images they showed, years later, in ways I might be less likely to remember words.

A junior faculty candidate – a historian – recently gave a presentation that had no PowerPoint slides, though it did have a few overheads with numbers that were illustrating his points. He gave more of an old-fashioned lecture, not guided by PowerPoint. As I was listening, I realized that my own reaction was that his approach seemed “old-fashioned” and something from another era – and I’m pretty old-fashioned in these regards myself.
One reaction to all this is that the new technology has made it easier to help people learn in ways they have always more easily learned – the adage “one picture is worth a thousand words” is not a product of the digital age. But I am guessing that these changes we are now seeing with students have implications for workplaces and even public debate. It is my impression that PowerPoint used in government settings is still closer to Release 1.0.  And I am wondering when political candidates or government leaders will start replacing traditional speeches with some version of PowerPoint (remember Ross Perot’s graphs in the 1992 campaign?).
I would be curious about reactions from other faculty, or students, about the above.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 01, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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