Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Did PowerPoint Get a Bum Rap?

When I used to run SCALE, a soft money unit funded largely by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support “asynchronous learning” on my campus, I would frequently give presentations and always end them with the mantra --- “It’s not the technology. It’s how you use it.” For whatever reason, we all need regular reminders that intelligent use matters. It matters a lot.

Examples of pernicious use abound. Often, in my opinion, the technology gets blamed where it is really bad use that is at fault. One can sensibly ask, isn’t it the technology that begats bad use? My answer is that it can aide and abet, but the main culprit is lack of thinking and lack of perspective. In the case of instructional technology compounding factors are instructor nervousness and the instructor belief that she has to “get through” the lecture.

Below there are several examples, each using PowerPoint, to show that several of the things it is blamed for in live instructions are not really an artifact of the technology at all, but rather of not seeing the possibilities and pitfalls.

Blank Slate Approach

A colleague of mine who is quite a well regarded lecturer, indeed he is an award winning teacher, and now a Tablet PC devotee, has long been an advocate for using (colored) chalk in teaching economics rather than using PowerPoint, because he wanted to construct diagrams as he makes argument. He did not want his graphs pre-made. Here are examples of his lectures, ex post. Click on any of the date links on the left to take a look. He has a bunch of blank slides coming into class and during class uses PowerPoint as a whiteboard. The slide titles that you see on the left for navigation are put in after lecture so the students can review the content more quickly. You can also see that in addition to this analytic content each class contains reference to some item in the news which can be analyzed with the same economic tools.

One of the things that should be noted about these lectures is the number of slides. If an instructor takes a blank slate approach with a Tablet PC, then everything must be hand written out. The pacing therefore does not outdistance the note takers in the class and the instructor of necessity lingers on a particular slide longer because that slide is being constructed as the idea is being described.

Active Text Boxes

This next example is from my own class taught a few years ago. It is in PowerPoint, not HTML. It is not startling but it does show you can do partial blank slate and partial preparation even without a Tablet PC, where the instructor (or someone else to drive the computer) types content into the text box during the live class. In effect, the text box is a way to take notes on the live session and this can include the responses or questions of the students. It allows canned stuff to be used if the instructor feels impelled to do that. (You will see an embedded Excel file which contains student responses from an online survey question and my reactions to those responses.)

Navigation with an Index Slide

I have a colleague who supports instructors working with our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Academy. She is a longtime user of overhead transparencies to do her presentations and while she is trying hard to embrace technology, she is a little intimidated by it. PowerPoint has been vexing to her. Part of the problem is that she wants to be able to reorder content and skip around from slide to slide, based on how that particular presentation is going. She has found PowerPoint kind of linear and thus thwarted the way she is comfortable doing a presentation.

I thought about this a bit and made this demo to show how an index slide can resolve those problems. I sometimes am too terse in my explanations. For this approach to work (not in the demo) the slide titles must be sufficiently illustrative that she can identify the slides by them. By making it a practice to click the index slide link after each slide, she can present the slides in any order she chooses.

Use Normal Mode Instead of SlideShow Mode

If an instructor teaches in Normal mode, with the pane on the left exposed to show Slide view, then students can see the previous slide while the instructor is working on the current slide. This is a little harder on the presenter as one has to do more than touch the Space Bar to move between slides, but now the students have the advantage that things are not immediately “erased” when the instructor clicks to a new slide.

Much of the criticism of PowerPoint is really criticism of presentations that are “in the can” which seem inflexible and don’t enable the audience to truly participate. In the can presentations encourage the presenter to go faster than the audience really wants. Once an instructor is aware of the pitfalls from in the can presentation, the pacing issue can be addressed and there are various ways to bring the audience into the discussion.

PowerPoint has two great virtues in my view. First, it makes the presenter cognizant of the size text should be on the screen so the audience can view it. Some presenters still jam too much content on a slide, so that people sitting in the back or at the side of the room can’t see what is on the screen. So it doesn’t eliminate that problem. But it is a step in the right direction. Second, it is simple to use. Inserting and resizing graphics is a snap. Putting in hyperlinks is really easy. And content can be embedded so PowerPoint acts as a container for other materials.

The use of bullets to represent ideas can be good or bad, depending on the use. I know some instructors make slides where the content is topic headings only. The idea is for the students to print these out ahead of time so they have a leg up on their note taking when they come to class. Note taking itself as bullets may be an advantage just to keep up with the flow of the discussion. Writing full sentences then may get you behind the flow. When the instructor routinely reads bullets and goes on rather than fleshing out the issues more fully, that is bad. The bullets are poor substitutes for full ideas.

If after reading this the reader still concludes PowerPoint is a bad technology, fine. Every technology has its strength and weaknesses. My point is that too often we find fault with the technology because we don’t look elsewhere for what really is at issue.

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