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March 7 , 2001:
PowerPoint: Tool for success or recipe for disaster?

Before PowerPoint, professors shuffled with transparencies, now it's the Next button

By Andrew Shtulman '01

The third week of the semester proved to be a particularly trying time for my professors. Monday's biology class was delayed by 20 minutes, Tuesday's anthropology class was delayed by 10 minutes, and Wednesday's psychology class was delayed by 15 minutes. The professors were not sick, on strike, in traffic, or otherwise indisposed. Rather, they were experiencing technical difficulties with their PowerPoint presentations.

As I sat by patiently, watching one professor reboot his computer six times, I began to contemplate the rise in popularity of the PowerPoint presentation and the consequent downfall of the overhead transparency. I remember a time not long ago when PowerPoint was a rarity in the Princeton classroom. Out of the 26 classes I've taken during my first three years of college, only three included PowerPoint-guided lectures. This year, however, five of my professors use PowerPoint nearly twice the total of all previous years combined! Naturally, I'm just one student taking a mere handful of classes - hardly a representative sample on which to base a statistical conclusion - but from my limited experience, it's seems clear that PowerPoint's popularity has grown exponentially over the last few semesters. Like grade inflation of the late '90s, PowerPoint appears to be the newest fad among Princeton faculty.

What does this trend mean for the average Princeton student? Aside from the occasional 20-minute delay, lectures will now run more smoothly and more efficiently than ever before. No longer do students have to wait between visuals, as professors shuffle through heaps of near-identical transparencies. PowerPoint provides seamless transitions, augmented by visually appealing "checkerboard"" and "wipe down" effects. No longer must students stare at row after row of black lettering on a white background. PowerPoint allows the professor to set the text to any number of colors and then superimpose that text on an assortment of titillating background designs - everything from "Network Blitz" to "Dad's Tie." And with PowerPoint, professors can now insert animations and movie clips into their presentations, making it no longer necessary to create manual animations, i.e. moving the transparency really fast.

Perhaps the best feature of PowerPoint, however, is its reproducibility. Not only can professors make handy printouts at the click of a button, they can also put their entire presentation right on the web. This technological breakthrough gives students more flexibility in deciding (a) whether or not to take notes and (b) whether or not to attend classes. Since Princeton students are highly motivated, they will naturally chose to attend class and to take notes in all but the most dire circumstances, though online PowerPoint presentations do make it possible never to enter a lecture hall again. Nevertheless, the temptation to sleep through class will undoubtedly be outweighed by students, eagerness to experience the power and beauty of a PowerPoint lecture, which, in its purest form, provides a flawless synthesis of auditory and visual stimuli.

Indeed, the PowerPoint lectures delivered at Princeton will be of the utmost quality, since Princeton professors would never dream of cluttering a slide with too much text or too many graphics just because adding more of each is so easy. Similarly, Princeton professors will always pare down their lectures to the most important points regardless of how easy it is to add one more slide (or six) to the presentation. And, God forbid the professor should run into difficulties displaying his beloved PowerPoint, he would still be able to conduct a lecture without the support of his (albeit, amazing) visual aid. After all, PowerPoint is not what makes a lecture good; it's what makes a lecture better!

In all seriousness, PowerPoint's foray into the educational setting does come as a mixed blessing. While PowerPoint's graphic and multimedia features allow for greater creativity, such features also open the door to disorganization (as in the case of professors who neglect to edit their presentations) and gaudiness (as in the case of professors who "overdose" on clipart and sound effects). Also, while putting PowerPoint presentations online may give students a heads-up on lecture, professors should be wary that they're also giving students an excuse not to come to class.

Whether more professors really are using PowerPoint or I just happened to hit upon a string of PowerPoint enthusiasts, the ramifications of PowerPoint in the classroom might be something worthwhile for the University to look into. While, on the one hand, PowerPoint can be used as a powerful tool for success (as I'm sure Microsoft intended it to be), it can also become a recipe for disaster. Or at the very least, the cause of numerous delays.

You can reach Andrew Shtulman shtulman@princeton.edu