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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive To Powerpoint Or Not To Powerpoint: Is There Another Way To Utilize Computer Tools In The Classroom?

Computer enhanced classrooms, online education, and what I call "blended pedagogy" (a mixture of traditional lectures and one or more of the many digital educational enhancements available to professors today) have changed the way we teach. Most of our students, especially the younger ones, cannot remember a time without computers and happily embrace the rapidly changing digital world. Our efforts as professors, no matter how informed, can appear worn and frayed to the modern student if lectures are not constantly updated and presented in a multi-media format. To this end, both the SBL and the AAR have held ongoing sessions at their annual meetings on "Teaching and the Academic Study of Religion." These sessions are frequented by those who seek to make their scholarship relevant to their computer-savvy students. To do this, most faculty have resorted to the ubiquitous PowerPoint format to enliven their presentations. Microsoft's PowerPoint[1] is not without its merits as it offers a readily accessible, easily mastered presentation format available on most computers. Its user-friendly, attractive structure is easily updated and offers a welcome complement to the traditional lecture format.

Nevertheless, PowerPoint is not without its drawbacks. By virtue of its ubiquity, it has become overused and can quickly become boring. Though attractive, it can be repetitive as there are only so many different ways to incorporate text or graphics into the PowerPoint onscreen format. Many younger students are adept at PowerPoint themselves and actually interact on a critical level with the teacher's design choices during the lecture; i.e., focusing less on the material and more on how they might "do it better." Moreover, middle school students have for several years been producing science fair and history fair projects with MS MovieMaker or "Pinnacle Studio" video editing software and consider PowerPoint rather passé.

Although PowerPoint is easily updated with new material (e.g., new research or lecture additions, links to intriguing current affairs, color alterations, and faster or slower pace), perhaps its greatest drawback is that it is not responsive to the dynamics of a classroom. Since a PowerPoint presentation follows a preset agenda, it can stifle student interaction on the topic of the day as the presentation directs a class simply to "get through the material." Who has not received the familiar PowerPoint handouts (slides on the left, blank note-taking space on the right)? Yet, I rarely see notes in those blank spaces after a presentation. In addition to these problems, some professors abuse the system and use PowerPoint to present more material than would be possible without it—the more material the better! If the teacher wants to facilitate discussion, it generally follows the conclusion of the PowerPoint segment of the class or is inserted during a pause in the presentation ("discuss here"). At its worst, a PowerPoint presentation sometimes degenerates into the presenter's reading each slide to the class—with little or no content revision—semester after semester. So much for pedagogical forays into "cutting edge" technology. Surely there is a better way to utilize the technology so familiar to our students.

I have developed an alternative to PowerPoint.[2] To facilitate my lectures in introductory biblical studies classes, for example, I have developed separate electronic file folders on my computer for each book of the Bible or the Apocrypha. [3] Each lecture has its own folder, and most lectures have sub-folders. In order to do this, I am constantly on the lookout for new material (e.g., news articles, current events, pictures and maps, music and movie clips) that I may use to augment my lectures. [4] This approach necessitates an ongoing quest for lecture supplements, and since the collection process is endless and will continue as long as new material appears, my files will never be out-of-date. If available, graduate assistants may help facilitate the hunt for pertinent material (or assist in the essential task of keeping web-based material current); I have found that students themselves make suggestions for additional pictures, maps, charts, and topics not covered, and they are happy to suggest content for future classes.

A few examples of my electronic file material for Introduction to the Old Testament may be illustrative (selected examples have been hot linked with additional links included in the footnotes). My file for 1 Kings contains folders with timelines, maps, and places (Mt. Carmel and the Jezreel Valley); ancient depictions of Canaanite worship, including multiple pictures of Baal; [5] and pertinent archaeological discoveries (e.g., the Moabite Stone). Each folder is a repository of digital pictures, maps, charts, sound bites and popular songs (when available), video clips, web sites, and museum interactive tours[6] that may enhance my lectures.

When I lecture on the first half of Exodus (1-18), my electronic file folder contains a satellite picture of earth along with close-up maps of the Nile Valley (some showing the different proposed routes of the Exodus), pictures of different Egyptian Pharaohs and gods from museums around the world complete with hot links for more pictures, [7] a drawing of the brick-making process from the tomb of Thut-mose III, various pictures of the traditional location of Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine's Monastery, and a "special issues" folder that allows me to respond to student queries or current events that touch upon the topic of the day. [8] I use music or video clips whenever possible. For the class on Exodus, excerpts from The Prince of Egypt have been very popular.[9]

My computer folder for Isaiah has pictures of the Isaiah Scroll,[10] Uzziah's epitaph, various depictions of Baal and El, Sennacherib and Sennacherib's attack of Lachish (from palace reliefs at Nineveh),[11] the Sennacherib Prism, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, Hezekiah's tunnel and the Siloam Inscription, and maps and timelines covering the different periods of Isaiah. For Ecclesiastes, I always play "Turn, Turn, Turn" by the Byrds at the end of class as the students leave. Obviously, some files will have more material than others, but the possibilities are endless, and the files are constantly changing and growing. I have found that augmenting my teaching in this way keeps my lectures fresh (or current) and allows me to be responsive to student questions rather than relying on the preset agenda of a PowerPoint presentation.

Each lecture is directed by the course calendar in the syllabus, and I make abbreviated lecture outlines available to students on the Internet. Lecture notes (hot linked to each date on the syllabus on the class web site) provide the same type of discussion format that PowerPoint might offer. Students may print the notes ahead of time or simply follow along as they are projected during class. Prior to class, I copy my current file folder for the lecture of the day to a flash drive (or FTP it to a campus server), browse through my file folder for that lecture to review its contents, and pick a few initial items—pictures or maps, for example—to use in class. When the discussion gets going, I have many other digital resources to draw upon in response to student queries.

There is always something happening in the larger sphere of religious studies, and frequently our students are well informed about some of these current events. The media are replete with articles on religion and politics, world religious events and holidays, archaeological discoveries or controversies, regional religious tensions, church ecclesiastical events, major book publications, and so on. Why not bring current issues into the classroom? Depending on the event, I always allow a few moments for discussion of topics related to religious studies, and occasionally I dedicate most of the class to topics that have a direct impact on our study.

Flexibility is the key. Since most lectures are comprised of both major and minor points, I make certain that I cover the major points on any given day, but I am willing to disregard minor points in order to respond to pertinent student questions. As long as I cover the main points of each lecture, this presentation format allows the questions of the students to direct the rest of the class; thus, each class is unique. Moreover, this method has effectively engaged the students in my lectures and has also countered the passive "watcher culture" that we frequently see in college classrooms. It is a thrilling and dynamic method of teaching biblical studies on the introductory level that capitalizes on the technology so readily available in today's classroom.

Bill Lyons, Center for Biblical Studies, Tallahassee, wllyons@comcast.net

Notes:

1. In addition to faculty computer training centers available at most schools, there are many web sites dedicated to PowerPoint. Listed here are but two: "Microsoft Office Online: PowerPoint" (http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/FX010857971033.aspx) and " PowerPoint Tips and Tricks" (http://www.bitbetter.com/powertips.htm).

2. I have taught in the Religion Department at Florida State University and the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Florida A & M University. I am currently the Director of the Center for Biblical Studies in Tallahassee. I have taught Introduction to the New Testament, Introduction to the Old Testament, Biblical Hebrew, Psalms, Hebrew Bible Prophets, Pentateuch, Ezra and Nehemiah, Old Testament Ethics, Contemporary Religious Thought, Hermeneutics and Biblical Interpretation, and Biblical Archaeology.

3. This approach to organizing class materials may be adapted to fit a variety of pedagogical environments: e.g., different periods of church history, the various expressions of Judaism, different files for each of the Dead Sea Scrolls or World Religions, the permutations of modern biblical interpretation, Religious Ethics (theory vs. practice), and Religious Studies Methodology.

4. Several sources I have found useful include " Biblical Archaeology Review" (BAR has excellent CDs available for purchase and an Online Archive with thousands of pictures and maps suitable for classroom use, " National Geographic" (www.nationalgeographic.com/maps/), the Oriental Institute's " Map Series" (http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/INFO/MAP/SITE/ANE_Site_Maps.html), Time, Newsweek, Christianity Today, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's " Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History" (http://www.hum.huji.ac.il/dinur/), and National Public Radio. Note: older, " non-digitized" material from magazines or journals can be scanned and added to your folders.

5. For Baal, see also http://www.mystae.com/restricted/streams/scripts/baal.html, or http://images.google.com and search for "Baal. "

6. Recently the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University hosted the "Ramesses I: The Search for the Lost Pharaoh" exhibit with an accompanying interactive web site that took the inquisitive on a tour through the inside of a mummy (see http://carlos.emory.edu/RAMESSES/). My students thought it was great! Some of the other museum sites that may be consulted include: the University of Chicago's "ABZU: A Guide to Information Related to the Study of the Ancient Near East on the Web" (http://www.etana.org/abzu/ ), the "Duke Papyrus Archive" (http://odyssey.lib.duke.edu/papyrus/texts/homepage.html), and the University of Evansville's "Exploring Ancient World Cultures" (http://eawc.evansville.edu/nepage.htm), to name a few.

7.For Egypt and the Pharaohs also see: http://www.touregypt.net/19dyn03.htm; and http://www.mfa.org/egypt/amarna/.

8.For example, one day when studying selected kings of ancient Israel and Judah, a student asked about the different depictions of Manasseh in the Bible and the deuterocanonical literature. I was not satisfied with my response, and so I took the opportunity to make a new folder on Manasseh in my "special issues" file with portions from the biblical and Apocryphal texts (that the students could quickly compare and contrast in class) and notes from the ABD CD ROM. In the future I will be ready for this question.

9.There are numerous resources available that address the intersection of Religious Studies and pop culture films. For example, R. K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2000); M. G. Boyer, Using Film to Teach the New Testament (2002); R. Jewett, Saint Paul at the Movies: The Apostle's Dialogue with American Culture (1995) or his Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame (1998); A. J. Bergesen and A. M. Greeley, God in the Movies (2003). Additionally, the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Nebraska-Omaha sponsors The Journal of Religion and Film and an excellent accompanying web site (http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/).

10. Isaiah Scroll and the DSS: http://www.biblepicturegallery.com/free/Pics/Caves5.gif (a great source with thousands of photos and drawings), http://orion.mscc.huji.ac.il/(with an interactive cave tour coming soon), http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/deadsea.scrolls.exhibit/intro.html.

11. Ancient History Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/asbook03.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Sennacherib.jpg.

 
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