Laptops are not the problem…
I am going to disagree with Doron Zeilberger. Which is not something I often do. His latest piece describes the Shocking state of contemporary “Mathematics”. Its not the subject of the post (summed up in the title) that I am going to disagree with though. To my mind he nails it. Its a small detail. Yet something I think is important.
For those of you who do not know Zeilberger is one of the strongest proponents of the use of computers to do mathematics (which I wrote about here). So ironically I am going to complain about his use of computers.
The outline of his message is that mathematics has become divided into small specialities:
topological algebraic Lie theorists, algebraic analytic number theorists, pseudo-spectral graph theorists
and this problem is made worse by the fact that even general talks have no more than a few minutes of general history and motivation before leaping into the details that only a fellow expert on the analytic and algebraic topology of local Euclidian metrization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds could understand.
This is all true. We have all been to too many such talks. He then starts to give the solutions:
One culprit is the pernicious laptop, it should be outlawed! It encourages the speaker to pass the cognitive speed-limit by orders of magnitude. Sure enough, the best invited talk was Michael Kiessling’s talk that used the ancient technology of overhead projector, and it would have been even better if he only used the blackboard…
Can this be? Computers are not just the future of maths, but they are holding it back? Is the blackboard really better? It encourages the speaker to turn his back to the audience. It concentrates so much of the time on the creation of too short often illegible notes on the topic. It has many issues. In the hands of a good speaker a piece of chalk and a board however can illuminate and inspire. So too can the pernicious laptop. Yes it introduces different problems, but it also solves some. With any talk a good speaker uses the tools well, a bad one does not. I suspect that Michael Kiessling’s talk was so good partly as he has taken the time to master the OHP, and thus uses it because of those skills. The laptop is the default today, so it is where the bad speakers end up.
To be fair the quote above does have one more line:
and it would have been better still if he didn’t use anything, just told us a story.
This is where all talks should begin. Once you have the story it can be useful in some cases to add material. It is then up to you to master the blackboard OHP or laptop to add to your story.
Why is this minor quible important? A central theme to his piece is the importance of communicating, putting ones (necessarily focused to some extent) research into the general setting and context. Just as computers are going to be key to actually doing mathematics, removing some of the tactical and technical hurdles (even Alain Connes agrees with this). Computers and the internet are not pernicious, they are giving new options for communication and intuition. Blogs are a great example. Tim Gowers and Terry Tao are both giving precisely the strategic overview we need. Even the Opinions are really a blog (though they could do with an update, at least an RSS feed! I hear wordpress do some good software…)
So please Ekhad, talk to Doron. Tell him that you can do a lot more than mathematics!
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Dr. Zeilberger’s comment there was specifically about using laptops for talks, while your reply is a general one about the role of computers in mathematics and communication. And for talks, there are very good reasons to avoid laptops whenever possible: see Zeilberger’s Opinion 60: Still Like That Old-Time Blackboard Talk, Chris Okasaki’s Why I Don’t Use PowerPoint For Teaching, and Alexandre Borovik’s Psychophysiology of Blackboard Teaching. Laptop presentations are good for “shows”, but for mathematical talks, except when used by very good speakers they tend to suppress the “music”.
I had read all but Chris Okasaki’s comments previously and I still diagree. My central problem with all the points (including Zeilberger) is that they contrast good blackboard talks with bad laptop talks. A bad blackboard talk can just as easily suppress the music, whilst making the lyrics inaudible.
I return to my point, the story is the key, work out the best tools from that. This lies at the heart of all the articles you cite. I agree with them. I just do not agree that laptops make things worse. We need to give more graduates training in how to present and then marvel and the wonderful variety of ways in which that enthrall us with their research. Not take away powerful tools because they can be used badly.
The problem is that laptops make it easy to give bad talks — and as most people are not great speakers by default, the typical result is more bad talks. Almost every beginning PowerPoint or Beamer user tends to cram too much text into each slide and go very fast because they can, in a way that is not possible with a blackboard. From personal experience, with speakers of equal (mediocre or lower, like most of us) speaking ability (e.g. the same speaker), blackboard talks are clearer and afford more opportunities to ask questions. (PowerPoint talks with no board nearby are the worst!) This is the same point made in all the articles above, e.g. “for less-than-masterly speakers, the quality of a blackboard talk is orders-of-magnitude more understandable”.
Of course powerful tools are always good to have around, and in an ideal world everyone would learn to use them well. In the real world, people are influenced more by the affordances of the technology they use — and there is empirical evidence that some of them, while enabling better talks, encourage worse ones.
Taking away laptops was obviously hyperbole, since it can/will never be done. But alerting speakers to the predictable perils of PowerPoint — its linearity, one-sidedness, rigid format, etc. — might, if not turn them away from laptops, at least give us better laptop talks. 🙂
You are right that it is easier to be lazy in preparing a presentation with a laptop (i.e. cut the paper into bite sized chunks and serve). There is a security that comes from having everything there. I do not say that the laptop is a cure for bad talks. Its just the blackboard is not either.
As you say the obvious crimes of both sorts of bad talk are easy to avoid. In my experience however grad students get nearly no feedback and training. A little bit can go a long way. In particular they can then recognise their own weaknesses and choose a style that minimises them. I am not talking mastery here, just guidance to tell which of the many common traps that particular person falls into.
As for rooms with no blackboard/whiteboard at all, that is horrible. I am teaching in a lecture theatre like that at the moment and it is a nightmare.
many thanks for the article, I love it