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Bullet Points Are Comforting But They Are Just Snacks

Bullet Points Are Comforting But They Are Just Snacks
Don’t just nibble at snacks when it comes to online learning. Move beyond PowerPoint presentations and enjoy the feast of opportunities the online medium presents for students. Photo by Jenny Downing.

Bullet Points are intellectual comfort food because they make our taste buds feel safe, smart, sensible and initially satisfied: all good things in theory and meaningful in such a simple way. But bullet points are often misleading and only give us a rudimentary understanding of an isolated leaf, fruit, steak, or potato. They also don’t tell us what a meal looks like, let alone how one tastes. They are good as snacks but they don’t sustain us. We need the educational meal and we have the technology to do it. So why are so many still nibbling on bullet points?

It is worth mentioning here that when I presented the concept of this essay to a colleague, his reply was illuminating, “I actually didn’t realize that was happening… with Skype, Screenr and other multimedia-capable online tools I thought the movement was definitively going in the other direction.”

I think therein lies the problem. Those of us involved in the field are under the impression that everyone is moving in the other direction – embracing the tools and making upward progress. But that’s not the case for everybody, maybe not for most. Let me explain.

As the technology develops at ever increasing rates, I am continually amazed at the potential for new uses of it in the field of education and training. Every now and then a great visionary comes along and plucks previously unrelated technology and outcome goals and makes pedagogical magic happen. The students on the other end of this mojo are blessed indeed for they have been given a gift of greatness by an inspirational guru of the trade. They are challenged to think beyond the obvious and, in doing so by imitation and lateral explorative learning, thrive. They are the lucky ones. They are feasting.

The others aren’t so fortunate. They get bullet points. Nibbles. How did this happen?

I believe this started when the ability to put a paper syllabus online became considered an innovative use of technology and the crowds went wild. Suddenly there it was! Ohhh-Ahhh! No more lost papers. Suddenly everyone could keep a copy of the information and its location was centralized in a private place. That soon transitioned to bulletin boards, discussion groups, some chat rooms – the educational world was on fire and everyone had a Best Practice and the industry conference presentations were filled with, “Best Practices of the Individual Software Variety” – but little in the pedagogical research of ‘why’. (I know. I was there. Still am. I’m one of the Researchers. We get lonely but we’re hopeful. Come visit me at Sloan-C in Las Vegas in July, we’ll talk.)

Soon there were too many cooks in the kitchen making hors d’oeuvres while few were focusing on the main course. We all know what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. We are all witness to the chaotic imbalance in education, too.

So as some institutions became intoxicated at the buffet of distance education options, they rushed to put it online and reap the perceived benefits. (Some, not all. Read my other article “Champions and Resisters: Coaxing the Dragon Over the Wall”). IT staffs were hired and instructors were told this is where they were going. It was promised as the Holy Grail of Educational Delivery. Yep. All the cool kids were doing it, and by golly, so would we. Distance Education stepped out from the second-rate status of “Correspondence School” and had become trendy. We were going to feast! Sweet!

Suddenly, so much information being shared, both vertically and laterally, the need to put it all into context drove people towards an organizational tool: Bullet Points. Content was pulled from full course meals to snacks. The cooks had gone crazy but they were honestly determined. Soon everything a student needed to know was captured nicely in a bullet point and, not too long afterwards, by that format that won’t die: PowerPoint (and other variations of the same type). Initially this was regarded as a great way to get all necessary content into the virtual hands and minds of the learner. But something happened. Little by little, line by line, the content started being overly condensed to the simple bullet point. Good for what they are – a tasty outline – but not good without conversation, dialogue, collaborative learning tools to make them come alive. Students were still hungry.

What happened to the meal? Where was the depth of the content? Where did the discussions go? Where was the learning? Uh oh. It appears that a by-product of the attempt to control the environment, reach more students, obtain more money, and influence more instructors a huge sinkhole developed in the delivery route and the ingredients to the full meals were lying at the bottom of a muddy grave. Sure, the tools were there (see my colleague’s comment above) and some gurus were readily and happily utilizing them to their student’s delight – but their use wasn’t mandated, their training wasn’t mandated, and there was (is) very little direction or rationale being implemented into the discussion by the powers-that-be. Not good. Not good at all. One cannot survive on endive leaves alone.

A quick aside observation as to why this is happening is that it is a direct consequence of a bifurcated educational world (distance education and technology vs. traditional face to face classrooms) that has been allowed to thrive in the kitchen of chaos. Is it potentially a reactionary outcome of peer-to-peer dialogue in classroom discussion boards? Notice the use of ‘reactionary’. I’d like to say this is a huge assumption on my part. A stretch. A big unfounded leap. But it’s not. I have heard (and witnessed) these very conversations. To paraphrase a speaker I heard in 2010: There is so much learning that has to be done in my online classes that we forbid the students to exchange personal contact information or emails. The class is for learning only. They need to pay attention to ME! Of course I didn’t remain silent but that’s another essay, you get the idea.

I digress so back to the main topic.

It appears that in the ongoing fight between progress, adaptation, availability, and ego some students are missing out and are being subjected to a Bullet Point education void of discussion, peer-to-peer learning, dialogue and collaborative opportunities. This environment – so rich with potential and forward expansion in the right hands – is generating an even larger digital divide than previously thought. And some are very, very hungry.

So what to do? How to eat?

This is where I place the responsibility of impact and change squarely in the willing hands of the learner. Notice the word willing. Much like consumers at a shopping market, it appears that the primary way of getting what the learner wants and needs (ability to share, discuss, collaborate, build) is to demand it. If a product on a shelf (in this case: education) isn’t meeting the needs of the consumer, or is distasteful in some manner, then the consumer shouldn’t (and won’t) purchase it. Eventually the company (the institution) stops making that product or improves it so that it is purchased. Students have the ability to influence this growth by sending their tuition dollars elsewhere. It’s called consumer empowerment. Some students have recognized their power and are doing just this; others aren’t and are being left behind. Which one are you? What are you willing to do for yourself? Where are you willing to shop for your meal?

While bullet points can be helpful and are really a necessary organizational tool in the world of education, they become a curse to learning when they are left on their own as the sole delivery tool of content and understanding. When there is no, or limited, discussion to back those bullet points (with none mandated or readily available due to institutional or individual roadblocks, ego, or sinkholes) the student pays the price. The shopping list is flawed, the recipes are simplified, and the student goes hungry.

I know that there are teachers more than willing and ready to implement the technology (and for a wide variety of reasons can’t) and I know of teachers who cringe at the thought of being made to implement the technology (and for a wide variety of reasons won’t). Somewhere in this battle of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, sound vs. lunatic, fresh vs. spoiled there is the student. They just want to use the tools they use in everyday life to be real, meaningful, and relevant in their learning. They want to cook full meals and eat well. This essay is for them. I’ve heard your concerns. I know your predicament. I’ve started your egg timer. It’s up to you now. Come cook in your kitchen and demand full meals! And when demanding doesn’t always work, cook your own!

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