Tuesday, February 24, 2009

the Power and the Point of PowerPoint

Gone are the days when ppts. referred to the nauseating residues adorning the test tubes in the chemistry lab - reminiscent of the misadventure which students routinely indulged in, at the provocation of their high-school teachers. Nowadays, they spell out the new-age mantra of connecting to the world (okay barring cellphones!). Wanna convince your teacher that you did do some work in the semester after all - make a ppt. Wanna win over your next customer - welcome ppts. mr. manager! Even the trashiest of ideas and products seem appealing and even promising, when presented on this platform.

The reach of this invention of Microsoft can be guaged by the fact that any lesser mortal incapable of mastering the nuances of this art is instantly recognized, rather de-recognized, as a remain of the historical era of pen-and-paper or chalk-and-board.

Such is the power of PowerPoint (PP) !..but what's the point?

The point, which is usually shared by one and all, is the one of convenience offered by this software of presenting complex ideas in an easy and time-efficient manner. The user gets a chance not only to organize the ideas in an attractive format but also can include certain relevant accouterments, which are impossible to be conveyed by speech alone or are too hard to be delineated extempore. The former feature is especially important for people in areas like marketing who are required to deliver a high-impact proposal in a short period of time while the latter finds special use for educational purposes. For instance, imagine the agony of a biology teacher trying to depict the visceral system of a rat or that of a physics teacher attempting to recreate a three dimensional image of a crystal without the aid of ppts.

I, as a student of science, am a close witness of this phenomena. Obeying the call of the times, I have tried hard to keep up with the trends and try to squeeze in images and animations at the slightest scope in my slides (On one occasion, I made the various slides have different transition styles....yes, yes there are more features like this..... when everything else stubbornly refused to render themselves to any sort of movements. At another instance, I made my name appear on the first slide in a fashion which reminded a highly amused audience of applying breaks to their car in the event of a stray dog suddenly coming in the way). Also, I religiously check updates to my computer and usually never fail to install one esp. if it pertains to PP, even if I learn about it at inauspicious moments (which is usually the case). An ironical occurrence in this league was when I was alerted by the automatic update service of my computer about another such leap of human imagination right in the middle of a presentation, but of course on PP. I remember the internal struggle I went through as I swung between the curiosity of checking out yet another mini revolution in the world of ppts. and the annoyance at it screwing up my effort of two weeks.

But sometimes I feel that amidst all this ppt.-euphoria, we might have actually missed the point really. The above cited advantages are all valid and well-taken but how do they explain the mediocre job passed off as teaching, in the garb of flashy presentations. How do we condone a lecture where we do see a pretty 3D image of an intricate lattice but fail to appreciate the science behind, as it is blurred in the swooshing and who00oshing of one slide after the other? Even public seminars and presentations are not immune from such technical travesties.

The blame lies not with the technology (let us not sue Bill Gates for starting Microscoft!), but the consumers . The technology is only an aid to human understanding and cannot, and should not, act as a substitute. No amount of cool images and pretty animations can replace good instruction in classrooms. The talent of the teacher lies in helping the students connect with the concepts, rather than just awe them with intricacies. The awe-inspiring thing about science is its simplicity not the flamboyance of its presentation, esp. if it comes at the cost of rigor and understanding. This simplicity is passed down from generation to generation in classrooms by the connection which a teacher establishes with the minds of his students. This human connection is frequently obscured and threatened to be lost, if the connection begins and ends with the keys of a computer.

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