Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Flying in from the left and other nonsense

Q: What automobile company and insects should a presenter worry about?
A: Audi ants.  ;-)

Leading off with a bad joke that everyone else knows is bad too sets a tone - it's all downhill from here.  Yet bad as that joke is, there is a point.  When an instructor makes a presentation it is good or bad depending on what the audience gets from it.  If the presenter has a good idea of what the audience wants, then that should be used in the presentation in a fundamental way, either to confound the expectation because there is more learning that way, or to comport with it so as to make the audience appreciative. Obviously, this is harder to do with a one-shot performance, e.g., giving a talk on the road, than it is with teaching a class.  There will be more variability in what the audience wants with a one-shot presentation and the presenter must take a stab.  Sometimes that will be off the mark.

I get turned off and very sick
Seeing presentations that are slick. 

There are two parts to this.  One dates back to when I was a graduate student going to the Sherry-Chase Lounge for a drink or two during the awful winter my second year and then debating with my friend Nick, for what seemed to be hours on hours, which was more important, form or content. Nick was the form guy.  I was the content guy.  Things haven't changed much since then.  I'm a content guy.  Most instructors are content guys.  If the presentation has gratuitous animation in it (as distinct from animation that illustrates the content) what does that convey about the content itself?

The other part is whether the instructor should emulate either a corporate sales spiel or a professional actor delivering a monologue, perhaps utilizing props.  I say no to both.  A sales spiel is biased as to what conclusion the audience is meant to draw.  Personally, I hate to be sold things this way because I want to make up my own mind.  Likewise, in an academic setting the presenter should want to make a good argument and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions.  The slickness of the presentation is orthogonal to whether the argument is compelling or not.  As to emulating actors, there are a handful of people in the profession who can pull it off.  (Lawrence Lessig and Michael Wesch come to mind.)  Bully for them.  For the rest of us, however, such emulation makes us appear both less genuine and also less professional, since ours will be a poor imitation.  We are better off with a presentation that has a feel of "a home movie" because then our audience knows it is from us.

Death by PowerPoint is an error
Creating boredom more than terror.

The terror is with the presenter, who is afraid of boring the audience.  It's what drives presenters to put gratuitous animation and other special effects into their presentations.  Maybe that will keep the audience awake.  It will, for about ten seconds.  How about after that?  What then to do? 

My answer to this is to consider presentation in different aspects - face-to-face or online, technical or conceptual, on novel content or where the content is covered elsewhere, and possibly other ways to compartmentalize presentation.  For online technical presentation, as an example, I've learned over the years that my lecture benefits students even if the subject is covered in the book, because the language I use in explaining the ideas coupled with going through the math derivations is something that the students themselves can't produce when they read the textbook, and it is that sort of thinking that they need.  Might other students be bored with it?  Yes they might.  The success measure is that some benefit, not that all do.  In contrast, since I like to write a lot, for conceptual stuff I ask whether I can produce an essay that conveys what I want to say, rather than deliver an online presentation.  Alternatively, if there is a well written piece out there that covers the issue well, a snip with a link to the piece may be all that is necessary, though my sense is that if it won't be on the test then only a handful of students will read it.

Face-to-face presentation is a different matter.  The rising popularity of flipped classrooms offers an indictment of face-to-face presentation in general, especially as the common fare in a class.  Much of the time there needs to be some method to assure students participate.  Canned presentation tends to block that, so it should be used sparingly.  Perhaps a spot lecture is needed when students show they don't understand an important concept.  But that is the exception, not the rule.

* * * * *

I was prompted to produce the above by seeing an ad for Prezi in my Facebook News this morning.  When Prezi first came out, I took some interest in it as did many learning technologists.  But I never became a Prezi aficionado the way I am an Excel aficionado.  The reason, I suppose, is explained above.

Prezi offers, at least this is what I recollect from when I tried it, an approach based on zoom in and then zoom out, where all the zoomed out content resides on a single virtual canvas.  In delivering a presentation, one zooms in to a bit of that canvas, and when that is done there is zooming out and back in again to some other bit of the canvas.

If you look at a PowerPoint presentation in slide sorter mode, it is one virtual canvas.  Slides are numbered and normal presentation gives a linear progression of the slides. But one can do nonlinear moves by inserting hyperlinks to other slides within the presentation (or to content on the Web).

Soon after I first got exposed to PowerPoint, I explored slide transitions and animations.  Over the last several years I've opted for no slide transitions and instead of animation to have several slides on the same topic, where a subsequent slide has the content of the previous slide and then some new stuff as well.  When this is math, the older stuff is grayed out while the new stuff is in black, for contrast.  This is easier to build than animation within a single slide and gives something of a similar effect when I make a screen capture movie of the presentation, without conveying any sense of it being slick.

Given this use, what does Prezi add?  In general, what does Prezi add?

When I read a blog post and make some determination of its quality, that it is in a WordPress blog or a Blogger blog is entirely immaterial to me.  Why should Prezi or PowerPoint matter?

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