A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Things change but we do not know it (continued)

Marshall McLuhan (November 18, 1961, age 50). The medium is invisible.

As I was saying no one sees the medium at work. It is invisible. It does its work on us and we go on differently, but do not see that everything has changed.

Me (January 2010, age 57). Another example?

PowerPoint has not only changed the world of work it has also dramatically changed the world of education. Consider this. Most lectures at universities – even in graduate school – are given using PowerPoint. Lecturers (or should I say PowerPointers) like it because they feel more in control of the lecture process. It gives them more confidence to have the slides at their command when they stand up to speak, say, for 1 to 2 hours in a large lecture hall. Students (the PowerPointed), however, also like it because it gives them more control over what they have to learn. How? PowerPoint typically reduces what students have to know for “the exam.” More and more, by tacit agreement between professor and student, what students are required to know is what is on the slides. And the slides reduce what students need to know. Conservatively, the maximum information you can reasonably get on a slide is 125 words. (Half the number of words you can fit on a single type-written, double-spaced 8½-by-11 inch page. But this is far in excess of the ideal of educational PowerPoint. The ideal is 5 to 7 bullet points each with no more than 5 to 7 words (The 5X5 rule or the 7X7 rule). The ideal reduces 125 words to 25 to 49 words a saving to students of 60.8 to 80 percent.

The medium of PowerPoint may be one of the more powerful and unseen forces that has driven the much-discussed decline in university education over the last generation. In education, unlike architecture or design, less may not be more.

Do you agree? Is PowerPoint enabling students to get by knowing less?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post
Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 280-281.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, January 26th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Education, Vol. 1 1 Comment

1 Comment to Things change but we do not know it (continued)

  • Dominique Dutoit says:

    The median number of words per slide is already well below the figures you mentioned in your post, somewhere in the range of 15 to 40 words according to Edward Tufte (“The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”, 2006, p. 15), who notes that it barely represents about 3 to 8 seconds of silent reading material.

    Whereas throughout Tufte’s essay PowerPoint is charged with cognitive corruption, Eric McLuhan is more inclined to reflect on the poetics of the point-form style (“Electric Language”, 1998, pp. 102-123), noticing that the readers have lost the taste and the capacity for long sequences of words and chains of reasoning as a direct effect of the switch from left to right hemisphere induced by the pervasiveness of TV and computer screens. Schools are only catching up with this phenomenon.

    Classics from non-abced cultures are often written in the point-style form and in many ways, the last chapter of the “Tao Te Ching” may epitomizes one of the insights that have been discovered on the march to PowerPoint:

        Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful.
        Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good.
        He who knows has no wide learning; he who has wide learning does not know.

    So, to respond to your question, I am not sure that PowerPoint does really enable students to get by knowing less, but they are more likely to be left unmoved by the studied material as they zip through books looking for the keywords that they dutifully have pinpointed in the slides, in the same fashion as jet plane travel has removed any sense of being a different person when arriving at destination and yet one feel otherwise when returning home.

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