[2] U-Resolution: The joy of unplugged teaching

Back in the eighties, when I was still attending lectures as a physics student in Germany, my professors were simply writing their stuff on the black board. Occasionally they would also place handwritten slides on an overhead projector, but that was it.

In a physics lecture, mathematical formula are the primary way to express ideas, together with short textual remarks and some diagrams. The overhead projectors were only necessary to present more complicated figures, but some of the professors were actually very good in drawing even tough figures by hand.

Later, after I myself had become a university teacher, the use of pre-fabricated slides was already standard and, finally, the notebook computer with beamer took over. Powerpoint presentations seemed a great way to get through a lot of stuff, quickly, and to enhance lectures with refined, colorful figures, videos and amazing computer simulations.

But did that technology really pay off ?

Alas, how much time I was spending, during the preparation of such presentations, for arranging each single page in an esthetically appealing way, for drawing perfectly clear figures, for seeking suitable videos on the web, for solving small technical problems ! And then, when the lecture finally came, a figure that had taken me more than ten minutes to draw was shown in 10 seconds ! And while rushing through all the material, simultaneously trying to talk and operating multiple windows on the computer desktop, I was stressed and had a feeling that all this great effort was, after all, in vain.

And then came a day when I decided to get unplugged in the lecture room. I did still print out some really undrawable figures as handouts for the students, but I didn't use any computer or overhead. I did prepare myself as thoroughly as before, but I restricted my script to a mere topic list and a few data and names which were hard to remember. I made no plan what to write on the whiteboard in which precise order. And then I walked into the lecture room with nothing but a few pieces of paper.

What a relieve ! First of all, there was no longer this annoying background noise of the computer's and beamer's air fan. Plus, the window blinds of the room could be left open during all the time, allowing refreshing day light to shine in. And, without any gadgets, there were no more distractions from the only thing that counts: explaining physics, slowly, carefully, in continuous interaction with the students, always adapting to the present situation. There was an air of concentration that I had not experienced since a long time ago. I felt relaxed, being able to think as I wrote things to the board. In the end, I could cover only half of the prepared material, which means a considerable reduction of preparation time in the future. And the best of all: The next day students told me that they really appreciated the "new" teaching style.

Looking back, I realized that powerpoint presentations suffer from the same problem as classical music performances played strictly after scores. In my opinion, any kind of detailed choreographs are a real strait jacket for the performer and can be tiring for the audience. Black board presentations, in that analogy, resemble live Jazz sessions, with lots of freedom for improvisation and spontaneity. And the audience will leave the room energized !