Has the VLE made lectures worse?

Leaving aside the arguments that lectures aren’t that useful anyway, a question from a colleague caused me to reflect on whether the widespread use (some would say abuse) of the VLE to host copies of PowerPoint slides has led to the lecture experience becoming less useful.

The question from my colleague was a simple one – could I send her the slides from a forthcoming staff development session I will be leading because she is unable to attend. A reasonable enough request, but one which I felt compelled to decline, because my presentation slides don’t have a great deal of text on them, and won’t make much, if any, sense without the accompanying presentation.

When I started to prepare the presentation, I thought I was doing the right thing. Minimalist slides, no bullet points, and lots of full screen images. The kind of thing that you see lauded as best practice for PowerPoint. (I’m using voting pads which integrate with PowerPoint so I can’t use Prezi on this occasion).

My design choice was also influenced by the fact that I know I have a tendency to fall into the trap of simply reading the slides on auto-pilot if they have too much text. This presentation is on one of my specialist subjects, so I could quite happily talk about it at length without needing to rely on a slide full of bullet points to guide me through it step by step. But the request from my colleague made me reflect on how slides are used in the modern HE presentation or lecture.

Which brings me back to my opening question – has the (ab)use of the VLE made lectures even worse? It’s been suggested that the widespread practice of distributing the slides used in lectures has reduced the need for students to develop note taking skills, and the reduced need for note taking means that attending a lecture is a more passive experience for students than ever. Some studies have suggested that note taking aids learning, whereas others would argue that students were never really able to effectively take adequate notes and process information they were listening to simultaneously, implying that reducing that note taking burden may be a good thing.

But having seen plenty of cringe-inducing slides in my time, I wonder whether some lecturers compensate for their students’ lack of note taking skills by designing their slides so that they form a fairly decent set of notes, to the extent that reading the slides can almost stand in place of attending the lecture? Is that what learners have come to expect?

And if that is what they are doing, what does that mean for the effectiveness of the live lecture, where we know that slide after slide of text-heavy bullet points is a great way to achieve PowerPoint Poisoning or Death by PowerPoint.

The lecturer just reads the slides” is a common complaint from students, but if the slides convey all of the salient points, you have to wonder how much scope there is for the lecturer to add anything of value.

A totally unscientific sampling of a few slide decks on our VLE and also the first few Google hits for those made available on the internet suggests a tendency for lecture slides which are packed with textual detail.
Some practitioners have suggested having two sets of slides, a presentation deck designed to be delivered as a live presentation and a reading deck for use without the aid of a presenter, but I can’t imagine too many academic colleagues feeling they have time to produce two sets of material, and committing to keep both up to date and consistent.

I’ve used the pejorative term “Virtual Revising Environment” to refer to the use of a VLE primarily to host material for the purpose of exam revision rather than for new learning to take place. But I can’t help but wonder whether the influence of this mode of consuming slides is in danger of becoming top priority in their design, to the detriment of the live audience.


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