ppt dependency

October 23rd, 2009

“Tear down the multi-media classrooms!” a student cries at the start of this article by Xiong Bingqi on 思想国@21世纪评论. What could this be about? As Xiong states:

这让我很吃惊,因为那时全国各地的大学,正推行多媒体“先进现代教育技术”,鼓励教师上课用PPT,用多媒体技术,其好处据说很多——可以让教室很环保, 老师不用吃粉笔灰;可以图文并茂,图像、视频、音频并用,让讲课丰富多彩;可以点击链接,与网络连接,延伸学习,大大拓展上课空间;可以与异地学校课堂交 互,获得完全不同的上课感受……

This really surprised me because at that time universities throughout China were implementing multimedia “advanced modern educational technology”, encouraging teachers to use powerpoint in class. Apparently there are many advantages to using multimedia technology in class- it’s more environmentally friendly, the teacher doesn’t need to eat chalk dust; you can use pictures and text, images, video and audio can be used all at once, making the lesson rich and varied; you can click links, connect to the internet, extending learning, greatly expanding the class space; you can interact with classrooms in other places, getting a completely different experience of class…..

First a few translation notes:

  1. I don’t know what the English usage is outside of my own immediate work environment, but ‘PPT’ seems to be the common Chinese way of referring to powerpoint presentations.
  2. 图文并茂, according to the dictionary, is used to refer to books, magazines, etc, and means “both pictures and texts are excellent”. It’s Friday morning, and I’m not yet caffeinated enough to find a better way of rendering that into English than “you can use pictures and text”. Maybe I should use coffee rather than longjing tea to fuel my translations….
  3. Chinese university classrooms still largely use blackboards and chalk, and believe me, environmental concerns aside, eating chalkdust is one of the bigger occupational hazards of teaching here. That chalkdust is incredibly efficient at drying out the skin on your face and hands and your throat- the throat’s the worst, though, as that, apart from shredding your voice, increases your susceptibility to colds and flus, and when you look at the students’ living conditions….. Teaching in China gives your immune system a good, solid workout.

Anyway, when I read this yesterday morning (I didn’t have time to post on it then, and had no energy after class yesterday afternoon), I was intrigued. See, I’m too lazy to use powerpoint much- for one thing, my first several years teaching I had a desk, blackboard and chalk. Heck, I had classrooms in Taiyuan that had no electricity and lights that went on and off according to the whim of somebody in some other room. Secondly, I find that powerpoint drastically increases the time spent preparing lessons. All that fiddling around with text, images, video, audio…. and despite the obvious advantages of multimedia, the actual benefit to the lesson outcomes is not always worth it. Yes, pictures, graphs, video, audio, maps, and all that can be extremely useful for boosting the students’ understanding of an issue, but I mostly teach academic writing. For that I find a good old-fashioned blackboard and chalk combined with working the classroom talking to students individually far more useful than fancy multimedia stuff, and word at least as good as powerpoint.

But the explanation comes: Apparently a lot of teachers have used the multimedia as an excuse to get lazy. Just borrow somebody else’s ppt, chuck it on the multimedia, and work off of that, no need to prepare. And if there’s a powercut…. you’re screwed. The result is students who, powerless to rage against their teachers and the system that allows them to continue “teaching”, vent their fury on the bloody multimedia classrooms. The machines can’t retaliate (yet), so they’re a safe target.

Xiong points out that, obviously, one cannot cure this “ppt dependency” (PPT依赖症) that lazy teachers have developed by simply ripping the multimedia technology out of the classrooms. The problem is in the system, so clearly the system needs to be fixed so that lazy teachers can’t use the technology as a crutch. He offers up a comparison that I find interesting:

America. In the American system, he says, universities have to compete for students and students have a lot more freedom to choose their university and then to transfer if they are not satisfied with their first choice. This keeps the universities on their toes, and although America, too, has its university staff who’d rather not see the inside of a classroom, the pressure is there to perform.

Fair enough, and it would be nice to see students here offered more choice as to what they study, where, and how they arrange their courses. But one can’t simply import some foreign system and expect it to work. Considering America’s own not small population, I can’t figure out how their university admissions departments work…. Surely they must find themselves buried under whole rainforests’ worth of paper? How do they process all of that? Vast armies of highly trained oompa-loompas?

In any case, I was intrigued by the article and found it provoking a thought or two. Firstly, it confirmed a suspicion I’ve long held that much of this new technology is little more than gimmickry. Let me explain: In the hands of good, dedicated, motivated teachers, the technology can be very useful for improving educational outcomes. But here’s the thing: Good teachers will get good results regardless of the technology used. The technology, be it a blackboard and chalk or a computer, projector and screen, is simply a tool. The tool itself is a mere object. The results depend on how the tool is used, not what the tool is.

Some people seem to think that “kids today” have somehow magically changed and we need to be using fancy electronic stuff to reach them. Nonsense. When I was a student the lazy students would skip class, read books or newspapers, or generally just not really listen much, maybe take a few token notes at best. Instead of reviewing or working on assignments, they’d go to cafes or pubs or watch TV or read books or…. My students now, if they’re lazy, play with cellphones, skip class, read books or newspapers, sleep, or generally just not really listen much. Instead of reviewing or working on assignments, they’ll play basketball or go to the internet bar or watch TV or download and watch pirated movies or…. Whether I use blackboard and chalk or computer and powerpoint, those who are motivated pay attention and study, those who are not, don’t. Using fancy technology doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to how many students pay attention or how attentive they are. The change is in the range of methods students can use to not study, not some magical difference in the students.

Secondly, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester, perhaps even deeply, about how my classroom works and what I can do to improve things. There are issues particular to my job that I won’t discuss and which I can’t do anything to change anyway, but I have been thinking a lot about what I can do to improve what happens in my academic writing classes in particular. I doubt there’s any way to make such a dry, technical subject interesting for the students, but as students of a Western as well as a Chinese university, they need these classes. I’ve finally gotten a chance to experiment with a whole new approach, something entirely different from how I’ve done things in the past. It’s really hard to change old habits. But I have seen improvements- some even quite dramatic- in how the students have handled various aspects of writing. Xiong’s article is a reminder that technology, in and of itself, will not make things any better. The key is not the tool, but how the tool is used. The big question for me is: How to apply the technology so as to improve outcomes in my writing class? I have yet to find an answer to that question- in fact, I find it puts more of a barrier between me and the students, as it keeps me behind a desk when I’d rather be moving around engaging directly with the students.

Food for weekend thought, at least.

5 Responses to “ppt dependency”

  1. Nicki Says:

    Wow, I just wish I had any technology in my classroom! Yeah, it’s the chalkdust for me. I teach at a brand new private school and I don’t really get why they didn’t at least get whiteboards and dry erase markers instead. Oh well. At least I have multicolored chalk, I can draw pretty pictures!

  2. wangbo Says:

    Chalk only in a brand new school? That’s no good. And I also don’t understand why whiteboards are so scarce in China- I still have whiteboard markers I used in one classroom (only one!) in Tianjin over 3 years ago.

  3. Matt Schiavenza Says:

    Just to add a note or two about admissions at large American universities. I went to a large public university in California that had about 20,000 undergraduate students and about half as many graduate students. At the time the University of California relied on a mathematical formula to determine admission: one’s Grade Point Average (classroom marks, occasionally adjusted for things like advanced placement classes, honors classes, or high school difficulty), and one’s SAT scores.

    Yet despite the relative simplicity of this system I found out later that the university employed several dozen full-time staff members in its admissions department. So I think the way they sort things through is by hiring an army of people to do it.

    Secondly I would be surprised if technology within the classroom would be taken under consideration by a prospective student. When I matriculated in 1999 I remember being impressed with the two or three large computer labs on campus but being largely indifferent whether my professor used PowerPoint- then in its infancy-, ordinary overhead projectors, or simply white/black boards.

    Your point about making students concentrate is spot on.

  4. wangbo Says:

    Thanks for the background info, Matt. My impression was many universities also take things like extra-curricular activities (and sometimes guanxi) into consideration.

    I don’t think Xiong was saying students would take technology under consideration, rather teaching quality. “Ppt dependency” is apparently one currently common manifestation of substandard teaching.

  5. Matt Schiavenza Says:

    Most universities do take extracurricular activities, personal statements, letters of recommendation, and of course financial status into consideration. I used the UC system as an example of a school that didn’t- and still had an enormous admissions staff. I can only imagine schools with a far less rigid evaluation system would have an even larger number of people engaged in admissions.