ACT News

Save us from death by Powerpoint

We must set ourselves free from conference presentations or classes in which the presenter reads out every word on every one of the 50-plus slides, writes Marnie Hughes-Warrington.

I want us to live in a bold age of university education. Plato excluded artists from his ideal state. Richard Haldane declared universities to be nothing less than agents of world unity. Ernest Burgmann wanted education to be in the hands of families, not institutions.

I’d like our legacy to be marked by the day we stop using Powerpoint. The day we set ourselves free from conference presentations or classes in which the presenter reads out every word on every one of the  50-plus slides. Every word. Fifty-plus slides. In  10 point font. No more motion sickness from Prezi or its relatives either. We’ve all clocked up enough deaths by slide presentation to rival the Game of Thrones body count

We need to stop doing this to peers, students and ourselves. My argument stems not simply from the observation that we are tired of being held prisoner to something that we cannot fast forward. We need to end Powerpoint for the same reasons that Plato became suspicious about artists. Education is thought, not duplication or imitation.

The point of a university is to create knowledge, not to consume it. The point of a university is to transform, not to transfer.

We inhabit a vast universe of information. All kinds of people tell us all kinds of things via the internet, social media and peer-reviewed publications. Good things as well as troubling things; revelatory ideas as well as banal and wrong-headed advice. I do not need a university education to gain access to those ideas, but I do need a university education to make sense of them. If universities can achieve one thing, it is to enable students and nascent researchers to become the generators of their own well-reasoned ideas via discussion and argument, as well as listening.


No ifs, buts or transition periods. If we want a world-class university system in Australia, we should not settle for anything less than university teachers and their students being active researchers and creators of knowledge. Just as importantly, we should reflect our commitment to ideas generation by turning away from educational approaches and tools that hold students and our peers in an arrested state of development. Does this mean the end of live lectures without opportunities for discussion and questions? Definitely. Does this mean the end of Powerpoint? Definitely.

At more conciliatory moments, I have tried to imagine a world in which we simply get better at Powerpoint. Manuals on how to create Powerpoint presentations do not give me cause for hope. SlideShare brings me out in a rash. I have even contemplated a world in which we resurrect Clippy and ze "helps" us to rethink our desire to create more than 10 slides.

But the creation of   Massive Open Online Courses in which slide presentations are beamed to tens of thousands of students at a time has sharpened my resolve to act. Global death by Powerpoint is not the kind of world unity that Haldane had in mind. If MOOCs don’t transform the world of higher education, it will be due in no small part to us treating them as an amplifier of approaches to teaching that on campus students have already abandoned in droves.

We should care about students as Burgmann did, and insist that they learn and teach with the best, not with an Arial echo of thought. Just imagine an Australian higher education sector in which every class is never the same because we recognise that learning outcomes are negotiated between staff and students. Now that’s bold.

Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic at The Australian National University and a postpowerpointist. Professor Hughes-Warrington hosts a panel discussion at ANU on the future of education in an online world on Tuesday, July 29.