Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sliding towards a conclusion

In some ways, the CDT Festival of Science at Imperial College was your usual university-based science symposium. Long day of over-running PowerPoint presentations: check. Needlessly male-dominated line-up of speakers: check. Bored students whispering, fidgeting and Facebooking: obviously, check.

But an interesting thing happened when the last speaker of the morning, Professor Lord Robert May, got up to talk about his experiences as a government science advisor. Because there was no PowerPoint, no slides, no visual aids of any kind. He just stood at the front and talked.

 This was unusual enough in itself, but the really interesting thing was the audience reaction. During the first few talks, the usual general general hubbub of chatter and disturbance had prevailed, at the back of the lecture theatre at least. But as Lord May's talk got underway, it slowly diminished and then stopped. People actually started sitting still, looking at the speaker, and apparently listening. In fact certainly listening, because they laughed when he said something funny, instead of the usual awkward silence.

So what was going on here? Was it the lack of slides that somehow changed things? This is just one anecdote, of course. More data needed. Correlation is not causation, and there could be other reasons.

Maybe presenters who don't use slides tend to be more confident (and accordingly more experienced and skilled) speakers. So their talks would be more engaging regardless of the presence of slides. Maybe though, having no slides tends to change the way people present. Their style becomes more informal, more conversational, and that is usually going to be more engaging than an over-rehearsed formal presentation.

But looking around at what was happening, I couldn't help but feel that not having the slides there was changing the dynamic between the speaker and the audience somehow.

It's interesting what happens when a lecturer stands up to present material to a class of students. Because in a way, it's as though they're not there. Judging by the student's behaviour, there's rarely any sense that the lecturer is an actual person, that normal rules of politeness apply (like at least pretending to listen when someone is speaking to you). No one is really looking at the lecturer. They're looking (if not at their laptop or phone or the person next to them) at the screen.

But without slides, it becomes more like a normal conversation. People actually look at the speaker, react to tone and body language, relate on a human level. Whether that means they absorb the information better is a different question, but being more engaged surely can't hurt.

Even when I was an undergraduate, it was rare for a lecturer to speak without slides. I believe it is very unusual now. This may not be a good thing. My view tends to be more that the lecture as a way of teaching or delivering information is inefficient and archaic —but that's a separate issue. If the lecture format is here to stay — and with the growing popularity of MOOCs it looks like it might be, we might as well try to do it right.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

New story: Victoriana

Another new story: Victoriana, published on Mirror Dance, the fantasy blog/magazine edited by Megan Arkenberg.

Mirror Dance is a non-paying market, however unlike many such, it generally publishes a good quality of writing and always looks beautiful.

This one is a historical fantasy/alternate history. It was inspired by the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, which is really quite a bizarre and extraordinary thing when you stop to look at it. And also by the delightful walk from Kensington to Westminster, past two palaces and through three Royal Parks, which I'm lucky enough to have as an optional part of my regular commute.