How to protect students from death by Powerpoint in September

How might we protect students from “Death By Powerpoint” next year – in a world where online learning looks increasingly prominent?

It’s May 2015. I’m 19 years old and coming to the end of the first year of my Psychology degree at the University of Bath. I’ve spent the year getting to know my flatmates, exploring the city of Bath and of course, learning all the academic skills required of me: APA referencing, academic writing style, critical arguments, the lot.

And I enjoyed my lectures, but let’s be clear – “Death By Powerpoint” is not a new problem. You only have to Google the phrase to see various TedTalks and BBC news articles about the phenomenon.

I would sit in lecture after lecture during my degree and listen to a lecturer read off powerpoint slides. It was, for all intents and purposes, death by powerpoint. But let me tell you why, in 2015, it didn’t matter.

Five long years ago

Back then it didn’t matter because I was sat next to my best friend who I’d met in Freshers’ Week, whose notes I could copy if I’d zoned out for half of it. It didn’t matter – because I could discuss the content over lunch in the campus café with course mates to make sure I’d understood it all correctly. It didn’t matter because playing Sport or going to a society social gave me the “resurrection” I needed. It didn’t matter, crucially, because we had each other. We protected each other from “Death from Powerpoint”.

If lectures are the bread and butter of university then it’s the people, the opportunities and the environment that provide the filling – turning something fairly unpalatable on its own, into something you want to pay for, and indulge in.

So, what can we expect when, in a post-covid world, students who are still dispersed across the globe – and sit down once more, in front of a powerpoint, to learn what’s needed for them to complete their degrees? I suspect there will be 3 stages at play.

1. Expectation

All students, whether new or continuing, form an original “expectation” of what their learning experience will be like at university. For the majority, they expected their learning experience to be embedded into a wider student experience – one with access to campus facilities, extra-curricular opportunities and in-person support.

This is the benchmark that actual provision will be measured against. It is the benchmark that provides context to the price of tuition. In short, they expect to pay for a sandwich that has a filling.

2. Compassion

Covid-19 has already changed the higher education landscape more than most of us could have imagined 3 months ago. Indeed, it has changed students’ lives by the same measure. They get it.

Their universities are scrambling to move teaching online, ensure learning outcomes are met and ward off any complaints with their carefully worded force-majeure clauses. Teaching quality plummets, but students make do. Their compassion for their lecturers and universities provide a grace period for their institutions falling well below their initial expectation benchmark. In other words, the sandwich they paid for is crap, but students can understand why.

But, as time moves on, something else starts to creep up over the horizon, with alarming acceleration.

3. Frustration

Universities will only be able to hide behind a global pandemic for so long. Come the new academic year, shoddy and inconsistent online provision, and subsequent death by powerpoint won’t be able to be justified any longer.

There’s no wider student experience to mitigate the poor learning experience and yet students are paying the same fees as they would have done for their original expectation of experience. In September, students won’t want to continue paying for the sandwich if it doesn’t come with a filling. Compassion crumbles away and is replaced by frustration and impatience.

And if there’s no signal from institutions that they’re going to do the learning experience “right”, students will defer to wait for a time when they get their properly filled sandwich – one that they’re happy to buy. And for those students who don’t defer, by November we’ll have a cohort of frustrated students, seeking out what their “rights” are, filing complaints to their institutions and demanding fee refunds.

So how do we get it right?

Avoiding the recreation of physical learning in an online space

Your traditional methods of physical learning work, or are bearable, because of the setting they’re in. They work, because you have a wider student experience that fills in the blanks.

As one student told me: “What’s being offered now has at best, been inconsistent and at worst just completely ignorant of how the learning climate has changed.”

Moving a once physical course online is going to test your ability to think outside the box you know as your reference point. In fact, it’s going to require you to throw the box out the window and start again.

Meeting students where they are

I’m not suggesting that academics sign up for TikTok accounts and deliver content via quick 30 second videos (although some have already tried). But where are our students in these online spaces? Are they religiously listening to podcasts? Are they watching youtube content that explains key concepts for their degree? Are they sending voicenotes on whatsapp to friends to check they’ve understood things correctly?

It is important that we play to the frameworks and spaces we know our students are already in to tackle barriers to accessing content, reduce the level of change and transition they experience and meet them where they are. Gen Z is already learning vast amounts of information and content outside lecture theatres via different methods. Let’s recognise that and use it.

Ensuring there is filling to the bread and butter

We might not be able to give students an SU club night, or a campus café whilst they’re at home, but it is vital we give thought to how we will provide a wider experience outside of learning.

Some of that is about those who run courses remembering to find ways to facilitate student contact within courses. One thing we know from the last 8 weeks is how much of our social contact on a campus is random, unplanned bumping into people. We have to convert some of the conversations in queues to lecture theatres into timetabled social contact between students.

At an institutional level, it will be imperative to partner with SUs to work out what this all looks like, not least because nobody knows how to create community and facilitate peer to peer interactions better than SUs. It is this wider experience that acts as a pressure valve to what goes on in a lecture theatre.

We’ll also want to consider asking staff to keep “office hours” via an online or phone drop in to help facilitate that face to face contact. We might want to ensure course content is uploaded and delivered in a proper structure so that students have the ‘in-between time’ to let off steam. We might want to make sure we’re deliberately encouraging students to attend virtual SU events and incorporating them into university comms.

Whatever it is, it absolutely has to facilitate moments where students can feel “known” and “valued” – both by their peers and their academic staff.

A high quality online learning experience is one that safeguards peer to peer conversations, meets students where they are, and changes the face of traditional learning methods as we know it. A failure to do this could damage the higher education sector financially and reputationally for years to come. The question is, have we got what it takes?

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2 responses to “How to protect students from death by Powerpoint in September

  1. Powerpoint per se is not a problem – it can be employed to promote active learning and interaction between students to students and tutors. There’s also a danger of adopting a ‘bash the lecturer’ approach in these difficult times – my experience to date as an educational developer is that staff whilst at home and also looking after their children are doing all they can to support and guide students remotely. Plus stark generalisations such as ‘Teaching quality plummets, but students make do’ do not help your argument in the the current situation plus what exactly is the ‘initial expectation benchmark’?

    Its all about developing productive relationships with student whether it be face to face, blended or totally online – developing courses totally on line requires time, resources and considerable planning. Furthermore, the idea of a homogeneous group known as Gen Z is fallacious – our currrent student populations are much more diverse than the author seems to believe.

  2. I agree the ‘initial expectation benchmark’ is a concern and that teaching methods are now being backtracked and rewritten for improvement. There is immense potential in this situation to improve our education offer and to create new dynamic and highly inclusive teaching experiences online, as Alcock is identifying.

    Co-development of methodologies with students, staff collegiality and creativity matter now. The timeframes likely mean that mistakes will be made, but there must be allowances made for this by students and institutions. The next stages of developing teaching online/remotely could be transformative as academic experience and if I were a student I would not want to defer and be fearful, but would want to be a part of this process. Lecturers, developers and students working together are capable of rising to this challenge, so it is a matter of how institutions and students perceive the potential we have here?

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