January 20, 2007

I Can't Think of a LowerPoint

So, what better place to start a discussion of technology and education than with the program that is my personal bête noire. And it should be every teacher's bête noire. It's not that there are no good uses in the classroom for PowerPoint; it's just that there are so many poor ones. Edward Tufte has written extensively on the misuse of PowerPoint. His essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, is well-worth the $7 purchase price. Google "bad powerpoint", and you'll soon realize this is fertile terrain that is being frequently plowed.

My personal favorite example is Peter Norvig's, The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation. It's a Civil War reenactment of the presentation Abraham Lincoln might have given in 1863 had he been so unlucky as to have had today's technology available. There are many others. Unfortunately, too many of them aren't parodies of famous speeches; they are someone's attempt at presenting information in a logical, clear manner and failing.

There are are number of reasons that I believe PowerPoint is the wrong tool for just about all uses in the classroom. And actually, they apply to just about every other setting as well. The single, most important one--the one I'll focus on here--is software bloat. PowerPoint just has too many features that are unnecessary in most situations.

A software sales brochure might describe PowerPoint as a fully-featured tool designed for making effective presentations when, in fact, it's a program that focuses on appearance at the expense of content. Just about every presentation you would need to give could be done effectively with one template, one font, and one transition. Why is that a problem in the classroom? Because when designing a presentation, students and teachers tend to get caught up in hundreds of decisions over which transition, sound effect, shade of green, et al. that they want to use. They try out every transition (wasting a lot of time in the process) and then include ten different ones (rather than choosing one and sticking with it.) All of this is at the expense of the content.

I continually remind students that the more flash their presentation has, the less likely their audience is to remember the content. I tell them, "Do you want your audience to remember the neat way one slide twirled into the next, complete with computer generated sound effects, or the subject of your presentation?" As student presenters it's unlikely that the audience will remember both. And as our MTV culture proves again and again, flash trumps content every time.

I've seen students waste an entire period just deciding which background color and template to use for a presentation. Ask them at the end of class what they did, and they'll say, "I was working on my presentation." In reality they were practicing work-avoidance. Looking busy so as to avoid the hard work of developing the content of their presentation.

Of course my students then ask, "Why are all those features there if we shouldn't use them?" Good question. Here's my answer. Microsoft (and other developers of the latest bloat-ware) aren't interested in effective presentations per se. They are interested in selling software. Here's what I think happens. Microsoft develops a good presentation program, PowerPoint 1.0, with basic tools for making content look attractive. They sell a bunch of copies. About a year later Bill Gates tells his developers, "Sales are flat; we need a new version of PowerPoint." So the developers dream up some neat, new features--ten new templates, eight extra transitions, more sound effects. Voilà. PowerPoint 2.0.

A year later and sales are flat again and Bill Gates meets with his developers. You get the idea. By the time we're up to version 5.0 we've got a Swiss Army knife on steroids. (Does anyone actually use that toothpick, anyway?) What the developers neglected to realize was that most of what they added wasn't needed in the first place. Except for selling software, that is.

Take a clue from the print media. The New York Times publishes a newspaper with the same color paper, same font, and same layout every day. They know that too much variability is distracting. If they've got good news stories, they'll sell papers. The same goes for visual media. Watch a commercial or movie and notice the transitions. Most are simple cuts. Occasionally there will be a dissolve or fade. The fact that the audience isn't conscious of these means that they are following the story. The transitions support the story, they don't distract from it.

But, you might say, for better or worse, we are stuck with PowerPoint on all of the computers in the lab. What to do? Here are some guidelines that I give to students and teachers when they've got a presentation assignment.

To paraphrase Hippocrates, "First, do no PowerPoint." Challenge your students to make a presentation without any technology at all. Some of the most memorable ones I've attended consisted of a speaker and a white board. If the students know their material, they're well on their way toward making an effective presentation. If they don't know their material, no one will be fooled no matter what they do. Of course, this may make the teacher's job more difficult. It takes more effort to really evaluate the content of a presentation than it does to count numbers of slides and length of sound clips.

Consider using some other, more appropriate tech tool. You can do great presentations with a Word document set in a large point size. Try Microsoft's free PhotoStory 2. It's a great tool for combining text, audio, and graphics. Have students publish their content to a blog, and let other students comment on the blog. My point is not to provide an exhaustive list here, but to challenge students and teachers to ask themselves, "What would be a more effective method of getting my message across to my audience?"

If you must use PowerPoint (and there are some good uses that I'll discuss in a subsequent post), keep it simple. I limit my students to one template, one font, one transition (with extra consideration for "None"), and I don't even let them start PowerPoint until they've done their research and written some content. Then I make them sketch out what's to be put on each slide. Only then can they actually start PowerPoint. I make it clear that they can add other effects to their presentations if they'd like, but these additions will in no way have a positive effect on the final evaluation. At best they will be neutral, and if they are distracting, they will be judged to reduce the effectiveness of the presentation.

There is much more, pro and con, that I could write about using PowerPoint in the classroom. I'll take up some of it in a later post. For now though, it's worth reminding ourselves that we've all attended way too many poor presentations by students and colleagues most of which were done in PowerPoint. Ask yourself if they would have been better or even worse had they been done without PowerPoint?

Next: How the iPod changed my life.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Content rules.
Having worked in the IT department of a liberal arts college in the States for the past five years I have seen the use, misuse, and outright abuse of technology in the classroom. It doesn't really matter if it is PowerPoint, Word, blogs, wikis, podcasts, SmartBoards, CMS systems such as Blackboard and WebCT - the content will always rule.
I look forward to hearing more.