The Future of Student Presentations: Reading off a Screen? (Rant)


Even pre-pandemic, there was a good reason to have students record their presentations at home and then post them to a forum for discussion: having students sit in class for 2.5 hours to watch 25 five-minute presentations was/is brutal. It's hard enough on the instructor, but the unpaid students (actually they pay for it) become distracted and completely unengaged. In short, it's just not a good use of class time.

Enter the recorded presentation, usually done with PowerPoint or Zoom. Regardless of the software, students are now able to simply read a prepared essay/script off the screen. This is particularly easy with PowerPoint's Presenter View (below). The same issue exists for online presentations even if they aren't pre-recorded.

While I can deduct marks for not making 100% eye contact (with the imaginary audience through the camera), this is somewhat nitpicky because their heads are up and their eyeballs are still in the general camera area.

PowerPoint in Presenter View

PowerPoint in Presenter View (camera off)

Why is this a problem? (If it even is?) Possibilities:

1. I am getting old and, as the stereotype goes, old people dislike change.

2. By reading off the screen, students are not demonstrating the traditional presentation skillset, which includes the following:

A) making eye contact with the audience (This means looking at the camera, which even I have a hard time doing when teaching online.);

B) showing that you have adequate fluency and mastery of the content to explain the bulleted ideas on the slides in an unscripted manner; and

C) speaking in a manner suitable to a speech, e.g. using signposting, gestures, pausing, and rhetorical devices that are absent in academic writing (usually the writing they are reading are essay paragraphs).

While not all students present in this audio-book manner, many do, especially the weaker ones.  These recorded presentations still have value in familiarizing students with technology, getting students to do research, and saving class time. Also, these presentations save students the anxiety of having to stand up in front of their peers.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that they are not a substitute for 'traditional' in-class presentations. Assuming that we still live in a world where the traditional presentation skillset is valuable for post-university careers (will Zoom takeover business presentations?), then not practicing this skillset is doing students a disservice. I think instructors, myself included, need to keep the in-class presentation component in our courses. The challenge is overcoming the dreariness of getting through large numbers of in-class presentations. That will require further brainstorming.

-- Written by Mathew Barton, college instructor, and creator of EnglishCurrent.com

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