There’s a bit of a debate going on at the Learning Circuits Blog about appropriate use of PowerPoint. Several others have written about this. Tony Karrer has several recent posts that are sensible and make good points and several of the others linked from the learning Circuits site make interesting points as well. Here, I’m going to add my two cents and focus on two points – first chunking and second what presentation software during a presentation chunk?
Even the best of us as learners can pay attention for only so long. I know I’m fairly impatient as a learner and after listening for a bit I feel a need to ask some questions so I “can drive” my own learning. I can’t sit there for an hour and process and just let the person speak, though my patience depends on the context. It’s easier to listen for longer periods to an interview than to straight presentation and if it is a very technical argument and I’m following along then, ok, keep going; don’t interrupt till the argument concludes. But otherwise I want to get in there and ask my question. I’m guessing that is typical of most learners.
So if we’re giving a session and making a presentation don’t submit to the “we’ll take questions at the end” approach. Either plan to have intervals of Q&A interspersed through the presentation or have those intervals arrive spontaneously. My experience is that this depends on audience but that most of the audiences I’ve been in the last couple of years the people are too polite. They want to ask their question, but they don’t want to go first. And if nobody goes first… The presenter, understanding the dilemma, can then have a planned Q&A segment early on. It might be easier for those in the audience to ask questions thereafter.
I’m guessing that most people who use PowerPoint are unaware that Shift + B during Slideshow mode makes a black screen and Shift + W during Slideshow makes a white screen. It’s my opinion that during a Q&A part there shouldn’t be anything on the screen as a distraction. So this function is useful as a way to signify that now we’re not in presentation mode. It’s usually a good idea to have lights up in Q&A, but it might be clunky to get that done, in which case white screen is preferred because it will make the room a little brighter. If it's lights up already during the presentation then black screen is fine for the Q&A part. And if you don’t have keyboard access during the presentation, do note that you can insert blank slides ahead of time so that reaching them is a signal to move from presentation to Q&A.
I’m quite confident in the above. I’m less sure about what I say next. There is the question during a presentation of whether that is with prepared content or content that is created on the fly. My own bias is that if the content is prepared in advance, couldn’t it then be delivered online? And if that’s true, why spend scarce face to face time that way? To this a possible counter is that even with prepared content the narration that accompanies it can be sensitive to the prior discussion in the class so that while the materials are canned, the instructors use of them is more spontaneous. If an instructor consciously does this, then that likely constitutes an effective use. Moreover, the instructor might feel that if the presentation content is already available then she can pay more attention to situating her narrative within the class discussion. This, I think, is the ideal we’d want for use of canned materials. And it should be noted under this ideal that even if the instructor posts her slides ahead of time, there is a good reason to come to class.
In the old days when I promoted PowerPoint, I’d talk about the instructor having a “driver” to advance the slides and possibly make other adjustments on the computer so the instructor can pay attention elsewhere. That’s the same idea for using prepared content. Once it’s done it’s one thing less to worry about.There is then the question of whether PowerPoint is a good way to deliver prepared content and to construct that content initially. I’ve heard other people tout different tools; I’m sure you have heard that too. But I’ve not heard anything like consensus on what that other tool should be. Most faculty have their hands full with other things. They won’t investigate tools in this to optimize over a set of alternative possibilities. PowerPoint wins as a result. You can call it the efficient solution or you can call it tyranny of the status quo. For me, this is not a big issue.
In my College many instructors are now lecturing with a Tablet PC and there is a question of which whiteboard software to use. PowerPoint can be used as a whiteboard, though it wasn’t designed for this purpose. The biggest single issue with this is that the controls for adjusting the pen color, type, and width are a click or two away. I’ve seen some of our less innovative instructors use only black ink with no other contrast for a two hour presentation!! Either the faculty need to learn the skills to use the controls, in spite of the multiple clicks, or we need a different whiteboard software for this purpose.
There is one other issue here that I think worth considering. In the old days when we had lecture notes hand written some place, there was a need to review those before class to figure out what would be covered during the next session. A full PowerPoint presentation in the can may convince the instructor that she doesn’t otherwise need to be well prepared. That is a pernicious consequence that instructors might embrace nonetheless because their time is scarce. The only out I see for that problem is for the content of the presentation to change over time, perhaps because of a need to keep the course current. Otherwise, this stuff can get quite stale and an ill prepared instructor with stale content will lead to a poor outcome.