Published in AMS Quarterly, vol 3  (February  2000), p. 7.
Original manuscript. Copyright retained by the author.

NOW, . . . LECTURE!!
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Professor of Marketing
Auburn University, USA

If you talk on the telephone while driving your car, even if you are using a hands-free microphone-and-speaker system you increase the probability of being involved in an accident. I have yet to meet the person who can talk to others in the room while programming the VCR and most people consider the presence of a leg-rubbing cat to be unduly distracting. It is therefore illogical to expect maximal use of classroom technology to always improve an instructor's ability to hold an intelligent interaction with students.
In theory, technology can make a presentation more interesting. However, it is easy for the equipment to distract the teacher instead of assisting.

In 1980, I was amazed when Rick proudly proclaimed that his doctoral studies included a minor in "Audio Visual Communications." A doctorate that also included courses in running a film projector? But I had to admit when I saw him in action, he used all available technology in those days before personal computers to put on a spellbinding performance. With films, tape players, slides and a well-honed "act," he taught principles of marketing in the biggest room on campus, with eight term-long shows every year (including summers), and he was winning all of the campus-wide teaching awards from student groups. From an entertainment point of view, he was the David Copperfield to the clumsy street magicians teaching the advanced or graduate classes.

But Rick was teaching the same introductory-level course time after time. And, more importantly, because he was generating so many student credit hours, the graduate students ran all of the equipment, a luxury that few faculty could ever claim.

At the start of the twenty-first century, I am experiencing the other extreme. In our video M.B.A. program, students view recorded lectures so they can take classes without spending time on campus. The video process has the instructor run all forms of contemporary classroom technology but the distraction of technology management is detrimental to the course for both students on campus and those viewing the tapes.

Administrators are proud of the capabilities of our state-of-the-art video classroom. I control a computer which can show my Powerpoint display to the full television monitor, or project it on a screen next to me. I have a VCR below the table and a document camera on top, allowing me to show students the latest advertisement from a magazine or figure from an article. Over and behind my head is a camera that focuses on students while they participate in discussion and a camera at the rear tracks me by following an infrared element in my microphone. And all of this is controlled by sequences of icons pushed on a portable touch-screen display that I can carry with me as I move around the room.

Of course, if I use any of these things or make changes, I have to look at the control panel and decide which button to push, watch the monitor while I refocus a display or fight a short-run glitch. It is all very distracting both for me and the students. Sometimes the students at home get to enjoy a view of the ceiling as the cameras jump around.

And I am supposed to do all of these things, or a subset of them, while running a lecture, answering questions from students and generating some classroom discussion in the advanced class. Almost every professional presentation I have seen has someone designated to handle the visuals no matter how simple they might be. Even Howard Stern has a producer to handle the relatively simple radio equipment while he talks with guests, but I guess all that talk of sex makes it difficult to concentrate on electronics.
As I left the class one day, one of my high-tech-minded students took a phone call while walking out the door and promptly walked into another student in the hall.

And, of course, there are the "technical problems." Our video room uses cutting edge technology, or so I was told, but I've yet to have a day when everything works. But then, that always happens, even when there aren't so many toys involved.

As presenters shifted from using transparencies to Powerpoint or other computer programs, the Advertising Research Foundation added 15 minutes to the breaks between each session to allow people to set up the new computer configurations. When I last testified at hearings in a government agency, my reliance on a document camera instead of computers made me the only person who did not lose half my allotted time to technical problems. On the other hand, the "AV Technician" at those same hearings assigned to change "slides" for me did not know how to focus the projector, so I had to stop to help him out. (He explained, "My real expertise is computers.")

But beyond the flaws and failures of the technology, the issue is whether using it makes a lecture easier to convey or creates its own new distraction. I have a set of graphic displays in my Personal Digital Assistant that I can link to the projector with a plug and (absent new problems) hit a single key to move through each of the displays. However, when I watch most presentations in action, the speaker is often taking time to adjust, fix or fine-tune the display, falling silent while concentrating on the new job.

Of course, I sometimes wonder why many presenters bother with the computer generated graphics. Most aren't any more interesting than what we had a decade ago in a simple acetate transparency. The speaker stops in the lecture while hunting for the mouse and waiting for the screen to change -- sometimes, even the fastest machines still seem maddeningly slow to refresh screens -- and then he or she stands in front the beautiful graphic, arms waiving like a demented weather forecaster to point to things on screen, or maybe at the monitor they are looking at, or maybe they just like making gestures.

Just because a technique is possible does not mean it has to be used. The purpose of the class is an intelligent focus between instructor and students, so when the technology shuts down thinking, it should be discarded.