Published on 2012/04/18

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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Readers Comments

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/04/18 at 3:48 pm

From my inbox (and with the sender’s persmission) I’d like to share this feedback:

“I wanted to tell you I really enjoyed your articles on the Evolllution site.

Your writing style is amazing. So good in fact, that I am hesitant to post comments live on the site as anything I might add would pale in comparison.

It is nice to see well thought out remarks about online learning and student engagement. In my own experience when my f2f course was moved online I got very little support from the school (technical, moral or other) and I worked really hard to keep depth in the material. At the community college where I work now I must tell you that students hate online classes. They register for them when no other choice is available.

Many of our students have poor technology skills and other barriers to learning and the school has been slow to plug the holes in the system.

While working in the tutoring center I find students to be fascinated by my routine use of online resources in my “real life”.

Many schools have done good work but I see that nationally there’s a long way to go.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that your expertise really shines through in your writing, as does a quick wit (a rare thing these days).”

Discuss.

Dr. Heidi Maston

Joyce 2012/04/18 at 8:09 pm

Bullet points are snacks but I also think that people want it in a drive thru fashion in every aspect of life. However there are ramifications to eating fast food every day for every meal. Obesity, Diabetes, High Cholesterol, High Blood Pressure etc. We need to slow down sit down and enjoy a healthy balanced meal. The analogy works in all aspects of life including learning as well as relationships.

James Branden 2012/04/19 at 8:29 am

Joyce — interesting point.

Powerpoints and other such bulletpoint-based materials can be consumed passively. The learning may not be as valuable or effective but because it’s easier to swallow cursory, educator-centric information than to actually take responsibility and -learn- something, students want powerpoints. To their own detriment.

Julie 2012/04/23 at 10:13 pm

Joyce’s point about the junk food nature of bullet statements is dead on, in my opinion. Junk food is never a satisfying meal. Bullet statements are neither satisfying for the determined learner nor enough to stimulate the reluctant learner to become engaged. Frustrating and wasted time all around. Eating junk food is a short cut, grabbing what’s quick and in front of you at the moment. Bullet statements are the same, convenient but empty information that only touches the surface of any issue or concept.

A great read!

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/04/24 at 4:40 pm

I’ve experienced a flood of inbox activity since this article was published. While I copied (with permission) the text from an email, what is worth noting here is that there were many, many others who would not allow me to do so. There is a great deal of fear out there. I’ll address that in a future article.

But for now, I’ll focus on the other points brought up by the anon. emailer above:

“In my own experience when my f2f course was moved online I got very little support from the school (technical, moral or other) and I worked really hard to keep depth in the material. At the community college where I work now I must tell you that students hate online classes. They register for them when no other choice is available.

Many of our students have poor technology skills and other barriers to learning and the school has been slow to plug the holes in the system.

While working in the tutoring center I find students to be fascinated by my routine use of online resources in my “real life”.”

It appears there is a long way to go, in some institutions, from morale, student/faculty perception, and student support. I am curious if the original author has seen a rate of increase/decrease that can be attributed to things like budgets, demographics, course levels, teachers, etc.

It saddens me that there is an obvious lack of support in some institutions and that the lessons of the ‘Father’s of Distance Education’ seem to have been missed.

Thoughts?

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/04/24 at 4:43 pm

Welcome Joyce!

Thanks for your feedback and input into this ongoing discussion.

You wrote, “Bullet points are snacks but I also think that people want it in a drive thru fashion in every aspect of life. However there are ramifications to eating fast food every day for every meal. Obesity, Diabetes, High Cholesterol, High Blood Pressure etc. We need to slow down sit down and enjoy a healthy balanced meal. The analogy works in all aspects of life including learning as well as relationships.”

I completely agree.

It’s difficult to see the immediate consequence of educational fast food via the drive thru. The consequences will be known down the road as students are ill prepared for the workplace and the foundations of our country begin to crumble. But, like the conditions you listed, they are there and they are real – and for the most part – they are 100% preventable!

Thank you for your input,
Dr. Heidi Maston

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/04/24 at 4:51 pm

Welcome back James Branden!

It’s always great to see you here ~ you have very valuable input and add much to the discussions!

You said, “Joyce — interesting point.

Powerpoints and other such bulletpoint-based materials can be consumed passively. The learning may not be as valuable or effective but because it’s easier to swallow cursory, educator-centric information than to actually take responsibility and -learn- something, students want powerpoints. To their own detriment.”

You bring up two interesting points:
Passive consumption and cursory, educator-centric information.

Passive consumption: The whole notion of this takes my breath away. We have created a self-serve environment of passive consumers. The express lane of nothing. That does not bode well for the student, our economy or our planet. Critical thinking skills and analytical behaviors do not develop and thrive in inert environments. How did this happen?

Cursory, educator-centric information: The model of classroom instruction is still based on the Henry Ford assembly line of production. 20/60/20… but gone are those days of pushing to fill that quota.

I am working hard to change the needs perception of this by aligning the discussion, research, and tools towards everybody’s potential rather than just a select few who simply nibble at the buffet.

Dr. Heidi Maston

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/04/24 at 4:58 pm

Hi Julie!

Welcome to the discussion!

You said: “Joyce’s point about the junk food nature of bullet statements is dead on, in my opinion. Junk food is never a satisfying meal. Bullet statements are neither satisfying for the determined learner nor enough to stimulate the reluctant learner to become engaged. Frustrating and wasted time all around. Eating junk food is a short cut, grabbing what’s quick and in front of you at the moment. Bullet statements are the same, convenient but empty information that only touches the surface of any issue or concept.

A great read!”

It seems that in an online environment filled with technology potential, to serve up education in watered down bullet points is not only lazy, it should be criminalized. There is such tight control on what meals can be served in school and every calorie, fat gram, and protein is taken into account. Every single morsel.

Yet that isn’t always applied in the technology faciliated classroom. There, fast food is still allowed. Why? I believe it’s because some institutions are unaware of what they’re ordering, what needs are needed to be met, and how to get there and why. My research answers these questions, and is being presented to many institutions, but it’s a really , really long hill up.

Thoughts?

Dr. Heidi Maston

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