Lecturers’ powerpoints should not replace passion

There is a distinct lack of any incentive to attend lectures as lecture capture provide all the value they can offer

Image: University of York

A recent submission on YorFess came from a student on Hes East who had made the decision to stop attending lectures since the second week of first term. By not having to get ready for lectures and travel back and forth; being able to watch them slightly faster on Lecture Capture, the student had accumulated 3.125 days in saved time. ‘Genius’. Unfortunately, as things are, this was indeed a savvy decision. In the era of the supposed ‘marketisation’ of higher education, this ‘product’ could do with an upgrade if students are to keep attending.

Despite their constant conflation, a lecture and a PowerPoint are not the same thing. This kind of topic inevitably veers into ‘back in my day’ reminiscing. Journalist Andrew Smith, writing in the Guardian, vividly recalls “the best lecture [he] ever attended”. No PowerPoint was used. On a large bare chalkboard, Professor Thomas Baldwin started by writing a single proposition, ominously surrounded by undetermined blankness. He would pace the room with total engagement, totally present. “You could almost feel the motion of his mind – and through his, your own”. Such a quality of lecturing isn’t just an idealistic aspiration- I predict that lectures will naturally be forced to move towards this standard. Plus, as it happens, he was referring to a lecturer at York.

PowerPoints – when the lecturer uses them to replace themselves – become disadvantageous. Students switch off. The lecturer switches off too, reading the slides. Extreme dullness ensues. Waiting in the rain for the 66a to have a document read to you is so little a reason to attend that it justifies not going. Even if you have some penchant for being read to, if the audio is available online, the assumption is that there’s something special about seeing the lips of the lecturer move. (OK there probably is some subtle psychological benefit in seeing someone’s face). But more seriously, when the lecturer reduces themselves to the PowerPoint, in humanities especially, it becomes almost impossible for students to learn and to think. We can’t emulate the lecturer’s dynamic, discursive, retrospectively rectifying, thought process. That occurred weeks ago when they wrote it. We’re just left with a fossil.

Hence we get attempts to make lectures more interactive with the obligatory ‘now chat with your partner for five minutes’. This at least recognises the problem, but there will always be a tension between the rigidity of some bullet points (plus a Getty image) and the open and unpredictable nature of discussion that is aspired to. You can feel that tension every time the five minutes end, they look at the clock, and dutifully proceed to the next slide that they were always going to move to anyway, the ‘interactive’ box now ticked. Pointless and pretend, just as one now has to pretend that making written notes actually matters. ‘Stimulating your brain by reformulating the info for yourself ’ is a reason for making notes, but not necessarily for going to lectures to make them. Students who stay at home will ‘miss’ this interactive element, but it won’t be missed.

If a strategy of incentivisation is to work, a shift in approach could work for some subjects. Rather than consisting mainly of regimented bullet points with the desultory attempt to complement this with ‘five minute discussions’ we need to switch this round. The engaged, present exposition of the lecturer should comprise the lecture, with any bullet points complementing this by ensuring an overarching structure. To be clear, Lecture Capture and PowerPoints are excellent and should be kept. But there’s room for a resource on top of these: the kind sought when something is so important that you want to speak to someone ‘in person’ instead of over the phone. Any such changes will happen gradually of course; no sudden attendance crisis will occur. Modern technology created the problem of incentivisation. Ironically, it may also encourage a return to roots for lectures.

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