Caving to PowerPoint

I’ve just began my 5th cycle of teaching and I have finally caved. Until this point, I had avoided using PowerPoint as much as possible. I made handwritten notes for class preparation, then used chalk’n’talk with only PowerPoint for accents. This worked reasonably well for my first three years of teaching, although it wasn’t without problems. Most notably, the classes are getting bigger and it is getting harder to see the chalk board from that far away. Moreover, my writing tended to slant as I shifted towards the right side of the board and none of the chalkboard heights worked for me. Last year, I tried something different. I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 with the uber stylus. Then, with a few gizmos, I would write on the tablet and project it on the screen. This fixed the slanty problem and made it easier for students to see. Also, switching being different drawing tools/colors was quite convenient. However, even then, I still have to give in. To PowerPoint.

Ugh.

I even wrote a post about 3.5 years ago about How PowerPoint Ruins America’s STEM Education. (I still think that’s true.)

But realistically, I think there is no way I could continue to lecture without PowerPoint. This simple reasons are time management and class sizes, but there are some beneficial reasons to switch and ways to make it more interactive. Almost every engineering discipline is experiencing increasing enrollments. For the two departments I’m in, one has nearly doubled and the other has more than doubled in size the 4+ years I have been there. This means I’m no longer teaching in rooms that seat ~40 students but rather larger lecture halls that seat anywhere from 60 to ~150. In the case of the ~150 seat class room, there is a good 25 feet between the seats in the class and the chalk board. (Clearly, this is not suitable for chalk’n’talk lectures.) For the record, I have nearly 80 in my undergraduate lab class and 45 in my graduate lecture class. These larger class sizes means that students will be forced to sit further away from the board/screen and reduces chances for interaction via Q&A. Now, writing on the tablet has the potential to mitigate some of these issues: 1) you face the students when you write so your back isn’t constantly turned to the class – this helps with students hearing the lecture, 2) screens usually have better contrast than chalkboards and it is generally easier for the students to see, and 3) it is easier to write on the table and make sure the text/diagram is large enough, even zooming if needed. So in theory, I could just swap my chalk for my Note stylus and I would be all set… But then there is time management.

At this point in the tenure track period, time management is crucial for me. I (should) have 4 students defend their PhD research in the next 6 to 18 months. I am trying to get my group output up to 1 journal paper per student per year. And with 11 graduate students, that means there are a lot of “mouths to feed”, which means I need to keep up with a group burn rate of about $40k/month just in salary and overhead on that salary. This leaves me constantly writing proposals. Over and over and over again (FML)… Anyway, at this point, extensive class preparation saps much of the energy that I need to be putting in to my research group. Establishing a slide deck that only must be tweaked from year to year is a much better option for me than panicking the night/morning before a lecture about not having enough material to cover. In my undergraduate class, this isn’t a big problem but for my graduate class, I think it is a huge problem. In my graduate class, there are swathes of material I would like to cover. But just freehanding everything on a chalkboard or tablet only covers a minimum amount of material. Based on my notes from last year, when I wrote notes directly on my tablet, I would get anywhere from 3-6 pages of notes. (The tablet is set up to write scaled to 8.5″ by 11″ pages.) However, since I started using PowerPoint slides this semester, I am covering anywhere between 40 slides and 60 slides in a 75 min lecture.

Covering this much material has pros and cons. The pros means that I can cover more material so I feel like students have more information to source potential solutions to problems. Also, once the PowerPoints are made, I will have little prep work other than tweaking from year to year. This might lead me to (hopefully) only an hour of preparation per class, rather than the 10+ hours I am currently spending to make these PowerPoint slides. These are the obvious reasons. However, there are more pedagogical reasons for doing so. My graduate class is a design course. This means that having an accurate picture/photograph/diagram is infinitely more powerful than just doing a rough freehand sketch in real time. Also, I still use my tablet for projecting the PowerPoint slides, which means that I can still draw freehand if I need/want to. I can even make slides that explicitly utilize this when I am too lazy to make a drawing I want to increase the engagement with the students. And this leads to the biggest con – it is hard to be engaged with the students when you are just droning on and on with pre-canned slides. Once students know that you will give them the *.PPTX or *.PDF file afterwards, they have Facebook to check, texting to do, and/or sleeping to catch up on. (FYI students, when the lights are dimmed so you can see the projector screen, I can also see the light from your phone screen reflecting from your shirt when it sits on your leg. There’s no sense in hiding it.) Students will then just use the slides to do their homework and to cram for exams but that’s about it. The other major con to preparing slides is that many of them are finding their way to the web, either by accident or on purpose. In some cases, I have even had suspicions of students selling lecture materials which is an ass-hat type of move and a huge violation of your typical Academic Honesty Policy.

To counter the cons, I’ve had to change the complete structure of my graduate class. Ultimately, I think it might be for the better. I’m hoping so. But now, since I have caved to PowerPoint, I have slides to make for tomorrow.

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