When people ask me how I’m settling into my first semester at Penn, I answer with a big smile across my face, “Very well, I’m doing great!” For the most part, that’s true — a lot has gone well for me. However, there is one thing that no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot get used to: all the software we use for classes. In the first two weeks, I had to learn Canvas, Slack, Piazza and Ed Discussion — and that’s for one class alone. Every single one of my five classes uses a different platform to send essential information.
In the span of one week, a class sent me 70 messages on Canvas including one highlighting the deadline for a test — a test that I missed because I have neither the time nor the mental capacity to read all of them. If the phrase “You should have checked [insert software name here]” seems all too familiar, you might be struggling with the same problem. No single software seems to be sufficient for instructors and as one of many students struggling to navigate and consistently check all of them, I believe it is unrealistic to expect us to keep up. Now you might be thinking, “Just switch on email alerts.” And to that, I say, remember the class with 70 messages on Canvas? Add every Piazza question, every message on Slack, and whatever people use Ed Discussion for and you have more mail than Harry got from Hogwarts.
Educational software has made a lot of things easier. I much prefer uploading assignments from the comfort of my dorm to having to wake up before class to print them and hand them in physically. Having class materials accessible digitally has made college life easier in ways my Gen Z self could never understand, but it doesn’t take an economics major to realize that after a point, diminishing returns kick in. There comes a point when the clutter created by using so many different platforms harms students more than it helps. If professors expect us to stay off our phones and do the bucket loads of homework we’re assigned, they have to consider that while the glorious new platform they discovered might have a couple of snazzy extra features, it might not be worth it.
Stumbling on this issue of communication revealed to me a greater trend in education, especially at Penn: Everyone, from elite institutions to community colleges, is scrambling to cram as much innovation as possible into our teaching model, which is prompting instructors and administrators to solve issues that don’t exist. The trickling of technology is not limited to outside the classroom. Due to their ease of use and convenience, they’re breaking into Penn’s classrooms as well. Today's lectures, recitations and even seminars usually use some form of visual aid — primarily, PowerPoint.
A college first year, who asked to remain anonymous, was frustrated to find her professor read a presentation verbatim with little to no interaction with students. I encountered a similar frustration while blankly wondering what I’m supposed to look at on a slide with 83 words, six pictures, one labelled diagram and five bullets, while my professor talked about a random analogy for all of two minutes before moving on to the next slide — a plain text wall of 152 words. To understand why instructors use PowerPoints and how effective they are for teaching and learning, I spoke to Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of History of Education and Dr. Philip Gehrman, professor and practitioner of Clinical Psychology.
Dr. Gehrman, who used PowerPoints initially, transitioned back to chalk years ago. Some of the reasons are that, “as soon as the instructor changes the slide the students’ attention is focused on them. It’s kind of like the idea of multitasking, which research has shown is a myth — we are physically incapable of focusing on two things at once, so your brain ends up rapidly switching between the tasks, because of which both of them suffer. The lesser the number of slides, the more engaged the students were.” Another reason he observed was, “If I put information in a PowerPoint, all the information is presented in the way that I think, whereas without PowerPoints [students] take down information in the way that they think, and the process of doing that forces them to think critically about what’s being written down.”
Dr. Zimmerman added, “Creating a scenario in which knowledge is reduced to a bunch of bullet points sometimes can be useful, [but] what students and the literature are telling us, is that it’s radically overused. I think the interesting question here is, does it provide a good venue for both acquiring and understanding that information? And I think there was a lot of evidence, suggesting that it does not.”
Both professors (who are highly rated on Penn Course Review) said that one of the most consistently positive reviews from their course evaluations is that their lectures refrain from PowerPoint. “When PowerPoint became a big thing 15-20 years ago, he’d often get the question, 'Why no PowerPoint?' but now it’s quite common in student evaluations to see 'Woohoo, yay, no PowerPoint!'” said Dr. Zimmerman.
Both also distinguished the good use of PowerPoints. They can be used effectively to display diagrams and pictures with minimal information and redundancy. They can be used as tools to complement lectures. However, I’d wager that they’re simply being used because “It’s much easier to teach with PowerPoint, since teaching without relies a lot on memory, the PowerPoint for the professor is a memory aid,” according to Dr. Gehrman. To substitute these ineffective lectures, I often find myself watching MIT OpenCourseWare, which capture what an engaging professor can do with a piece of chalk and, in many cases, dispel the myth that slides are essential.
On higher education’s draw towards technology, Dr Zimmerman says, “There have always been efforts to make teaching more efficient by reducing costs.” This is evident in the controversial flipped model adopted by the Math Department for calculus classes, which have seen declining reviews and has continued in-person despite pushback. While open to the idea of flipped learning, Dr. Zimmerman points out that its effectiveness depends on everything from the quality of the videos to the way that they are discussed in class. He stresses that “If, in fact, we've introduced this innovation, and we're not making any sustained research effort to discover if it works, that is scandalous and unacceptable.”
So what’s the solution? Should we stop using tech? Should we ban computers? No. Diminishing returns simply means that as you keep using more of a good thing, it becomes less and less good, and at some point can become harmful. We don’t have to stop using technology, we just need to critically evaluate how and how much we use it.
For communication, the solution is standardization to Email + X, where X is any other platform. I’d recommend Canvas but it could be anything as long as it’s one thing. That way, instead of sifting through tons of emails, students can just consistently check one. For thousands of years, whether by writing on scrolls, or succinctly ending phone calls to save on expensive fees, humans have adapted their communication to the medium available to us. The internet has provided us with thousands of options to choose from and many of these can be excellent. But just like calling someone that doesn’t have a phone, making students use unfamiliar proprietary platforms just ensures that they won’t pick up.
Fixing teaching, however, is more complicated. Professors need to realize that there is a good reason that teaching has stayed relatively the same for a thousand years. They need to more readily question whether their use of technology is necessary, evaluating whether their PowerPoints simply repeat or actually add on to what they say, whether they really need that extra bullet, and whether the class would better understand that example if it was written down step by step.
YAJJAT (JAY) SEKHSARIA is a College and Engineering first year studying physics and electrical engineering from Mumbai, India. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.