August 31, 2005

Killing me softly with their slides

Yesterday's Washington Post featured a column by Ruth Marcus entitled "Powerpoint: Killer App?" It begins with this very provocative first paragraph:

Did PowerPoint make the space shuttle crash? Could it doom another mission? Preposterous as this may sound, the ubiquitous Microsoft "presentation software" has twice been singled out for special criticism by task forces reviewing the space shuttle disaster.

The rest of the column is, as columns like these often are, equal parts funny and disturbing -- and each in several ways. I'm one of those sad folks who use Microsoft products like PowerPoint out of some ill-defined sense of necessity, and I'm always down for some Microsoft (product) bashing. However, I won't tolerate the gratuitous bashing of second-grade students' writing abilities nor that of those students' teachers' abilities to instruct them in writing.

I'm referring to this paragraph from the column, with emphasis added:

The most disturbing development in the world of PowerPoint is its migration to the schools -- like sex and drugs, at earlier and earlier ages. Now we have second-graders being tutored in PowerPoint. No matter that students who compose at the keyboard already spend more energy perfecting their fonts than polishing their sentences -- PowerPoint dispenses with the need to write any sentences at all. Perhaps the politicians who are so worked up about the ill effects of violent video games should turn their attention to PowerPoint instead.

Almost certainly, Marcus makes this claim in the absence of (a) any qualitative evidence of how "tutoring in PowerPoint" proceeds in second grade (was this vulnerable age group used simply for rhetorical effect?) or (b) any quantitative evidence of the ratio of time/"energy" that students spend "perfecting their fonts" vs. "polishing their sentences". Reading this criticism-founded-on-PTA-anecdote of both students and teachers has the bitter aftertaste of poor research on important issues -- I'm not saying the claims are false, only that I'm certain that they haven't been shown to be true in any significant way and that I don't see what good they do for any kids.

Though I do agree about the video games bit at the end of the above-quoted paragraph, at least when it comes to politicians. Leave the real work to the psychologists.

[Link to the column courtesy of Paul de Lacy.]


Update: John Lawler writes to tell me how well-worth reading Edward Tufte's piece "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" (cited by Marcus) is. I haven't spent the $7 to order it yet, but Marcus also cites a freely available story by Tufte that appeared Wired Magazine in 2003, "Powerpoint is Evil" ("Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely."), where Tufte mentions the use of PowerPoint in "elementary school":

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.

I don't think I can accuse Tufte of not thoroughly researching this, but I would like to see more evidence (and will therefore probably fork over the 7$). for the references here to "teacher guides" and "student work posted on the Internet" -- this hardly seems like cause for this level of alarm, or for the conclusion that PowerPoint tutelage is somehow replacing "learning to write a report using sentences".

(Sidenote: Tufte's Wired story is accompanied by a somewhat different point of view on PowerPoint by David Byrne.)

Plus: Language Log's own Geoff Nunberg writes to remind me of his 1999 piece "Slides Rule" from Fortune Magazine, which also appeared in The Way We Talk Now, pp. 213-215.


[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at August 31, 2005 01:52 PM