Stop me before I steal more. I cannot help myself; I am hooked. This was my PowerPoint summer, an old dog learning new tricks. It was a good budget year on campus money was available for new computers. Campus wisdom is to apply for funds when they become available, as future years may be lean. I requested a sleek laptop, having been inspired by visiting speakers who used them to accompany lectures. The images were clean and crisp, even in a lighted room. There were occasional technical glitches, although audiences were patient and polite as the speaker struggled to connect cables to the classroom projection system. Our graduate students have learned to use this technology in the belief that it is essential in the academic marketplace, where any job-seeker using overheads is seen as old-fashioned. I reasoned that if those I am paid to instruct could learn this new skill, I could too. In addition, I wanted to justify the purchase of my fancy toy. So it happens that new technology insinuates itself into campus culture; diffusion from visiting speakers and graduate students to senior faculty.
I cannot stop copying images. I am running out of zip disks, which I thought had unlimited storage capacity. When my computer was devoted to word processing, I could easily keep a year’s output on a single disk. Now I burn through a Zip in an afternoon and have proven that a picture is worth more than a thousand words, at least in storage requirements. I understand why the campus bookstore keeps zip disks locked behind glass doors. Image addicts will do anything to maintain a habit.
Getting started in this new format was not difficult using a self-paced tutorial from the campus Teaching Resources Center. I also had some hand-holding from a knowledgeable partner and a campus resource center with the reassuring name, The Arbor, whose staff were accustomed to nervous, insecure, and sometimes desperate faculty. They did not snicker at my elementary questions or imply that my machine was obsolete, low on memory, or needed new bushings. They took me where I was lying and raised me up.
The rules for copying images are unclear to nonexistent. I spent the weekend at the office scanning images from textbooks on my bookshelf. Pictures that authors obtained permission and paid royalties to use, I copied gratis. I have personal experience as a textbook author with permission charges. My research methods textbook is now in its fifth edition. Five times I have paid royalties to the heirs of Sir Ronald Fisher to reprint statistical tables. For another book I have made two $50 royalty payments for use of a single cartoon. Now it is freebie time as I scan pictures from textbooks without asking anyone for permission or paying fees.
Beyond the legal ambiguity, what is wrong with this picture? First, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these images. I’m stealing without knowing what I will do with the loot. I scan graphics relevant to my course material and don’t know whether they will add to student learning. I had previously criticized textbooks with scores of colored photographs that added more to cost than content. Now I eagerly sought out these books to take their glossy images.
Copying for classroom use is not a new activity for me. Previously, when I came across printed material relevant to my courses, I photocopied and placed it in the appropriate lecture file. What is different is the ease of scanning and the quality of the output. My hand-made slides were amateurish, poorly cropped, sometimes crooked, dark, and cluttered with extraneous material as no editing was possible, and I had no good way of integrating graphics with text. Slide titles typed on a word processor and pasted on a sheet of paper looked juvenile. Now, even without knowing the electronic bells and whistles, I can make professional quality A/V materials. The temptation to incorporate graphics into my lectures has increased tremendously.
There were several unexpected benefit of this summer’s activity. I culled my slides, discarding those that were obsolete or poorly made. In addition, while searching through textbooks for images, I came across new materials for my lectures. This type of borrowing had always been part of my course preparation but I never previously had the motivation to systematically peruse a dozen introductory textbooks. I found items useful for courses other than the one for which I was seeking materials.
Until this summer, making slides had been a cumbersome or expensive process. Either I photographed materials myself using a copy stand or hand-held camera with a macro lens, or I paid a photo service that was expensive. Projection was cumbersome as well. Even if there were a projector already set up in the room (chained to a table or in a locked projection booth), it was necessary to bring a slide tray to class, pull down the screen, and dim the lights. I cannot count the number of problems I have encountered in large lecture halls with complex lighting systems controlled by multiple, poorly labeled switches. Because of the preparations required, I rarely interrupted a lecture to show single images. Typically I gave the spoken lecture first and ended with a tray of slides illustrating multiple points. It was more of a visual review covering a body of material rather than images intended to explicate or illustrate specific concepts.
Before this summer, there seemed a limited number of images available for my courses. For many topics, I had no slides. Now the image pool seems limitless. If I cannot find something appropriate in a book, I can search the Web. It is difficult to conceive of a topic for which relevant illustrations cannot be found. As an example, I had previously used verbal metaphors to describe the “personal space” zone around the human body. I had likened this comfort zone to an aura and a soap bubble. I went directly to my favorite search engine Google to pictorialize these concepts. When I typed “aura,” I found and captured religious figures with colorful auras in famous paintings. Searching under “soap bubble” brought me to new realms, as soap bubbles are of interest to physicists, especially in the ways that several bubbles combine. I captured beautiful images of iridescent bubbles, some several feet in diameter.
Whether seeing a picture of an aura surrounding Buddha or a child blowing a large soap bubble enhances student learning about the comfort zone around the human body is debatable. By using concrete referents, the illustrations may hinder the learning of abstract concepts, undermining the very basis of metaphor, which is transfer from one realm to another. Personal space is not literally an aura or a soap bubble, it is only figuratively similar. I wonder if I am spending my time producing visual clutter.
My use of these images will be restricted to the classroom, and I hope to the benefit of my students. I believe this falls under the “fair use” doctrine, although I have no desire to test this in court. I suspect the situation resembles that in other types of copying. When there were just a few clunky, noisy copy machines available in the 1950s, making slow, fuzzy black-and-white copies on special coated paper, widespread theft was not a serious problem. As image quality, chroma, copy speed, and machine availability have improved, copyright infringement cases relating to the use of copy machines have reached the courts. As a result, the machines at local copy shops and on campus have notices posted warning against copyright infringement. Rental videos contain stern warnings from the FBI about unauthorized copying. The time may not be too distant when scanners carry similar warnings.
As in the case of previous new educational technologies, the legal issues will eventually be sorted out. Whether my summer’s output will be regarded as loot or as a legal cache will be decided by the courts. Whatever the outcome, I doubt that the Copy Police will come looking for me. I know of campus departments and libraries digitizing their entire slide collections. My hundreds of images pale in comparison to their thousands.
The important pedagogical issue is whether the new technology will enhance student learning. I have the nagging feeling that I am cluttering my lectures with extraneous images. I have heard many criticisms of the lecture method in higher education, the Sage on the Stage. Sadly I have not seen a better alternative for the materials I teach. Programmed instruction and educational television have come and gone. There are classrooms on campus with disconnected TV monitors hanging forlornly from the walls. I recall rolls of transparent film requiring special pens mounted at the sides of overhead projectors and a TV projection table next to the podium, from which I could send images directly onto TV monitors. All these have disappeared. I don’t know if today’s expensive projection systems designed to accommodate laptop computers will suffer the same fate. I accept the compactness and crispness of PowerPoint for single presentations, and am I preparing several talks to use at professional meetings in the Fall. This will not resolve my questions about its value in the classroom. Possibilities of distance learning are beyond my ken. I must be concerned with my classes rather than future possibilities for the technology. I cannot put my stolen images on the Web for general use, and it would take months of correspondence and many thousands of dollars to obtain permission to legally publish these pictures. The only justification for my summer scanning is potential benefit to my students.
There have been concerns expressed that PowerPoint is less personal than a lecture. I think this is true only when a canned presentation filling the entire 50-minutes is used. This would be similar in my view to a non-stop 50-minute lecture without room for student comments or questions. My use of PowerPoint is modest; it will accompany rather than replace my lectures. It will be a compact substitute for the slides and overheads I had previously shown.
When I sum up what I have accomplished there are several unmitigated plusses. I culled and updated my A/V materials and found new material for my lectures. Although I could have done these things without the stimulus of learning PowerPoint, it is very unlikely that I would have. New technology can compel desirable changes that could have been made under the old technology but weren’t because of inertia.
In a logical world, an innovation should be developed, debugged, and thoroughly tested before being widely adopted. The reality in higher education is different, with innovations proposed and adopted, bugs and all, and with expensive infrastructure costs, before they are evaluated. Although I am sentient part of an evolutionary process, I cannot foresee if this line will go anywhere. No one pressured me to change my course format, and it is unlikely that this summer’s activity will bring me any brownie points in the merit review system. After all, I could have spent my summer doing research in my specialty area. I made the change for several reasons—curiosity about changing technology, a desire to maintain my self-image as a conscientious instructor, and to justify an expensive new toy. I feel part of a larger experiment that lacks direction, coordination, and evaluation. This is not the way I’d operate as a researcher. After four decades of college teaching, I’m still a grunt in the trenches rather than a strategist at general staff headquarters. I’m not even sure that there are headquarters for this campaign.