AMS Quarterly, vol 3 (February 2000), p. 7.
manuscript. Copyright retained by the author.
LIGHTS!! CAMERAS!! POWERPOINT!!
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.
NOW, . . . LECTURE!!
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Professor of Marketing
Auburn University, USA
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
-- and then he or she stands in front the beautiful graphic, arms
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
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.