Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Some thoughts on the use of PowerPoint in class - Part II

In 2005 Elliott Masie decided that at the Learning 2005 Conference "every session will only have one slide" - what he called a "1 pager". I met Elliott once, I think about 1994, when he visited the then CBT Systems offices in Clonskeagh. He is a keynote speaker at the EdTech 2010 Conference which is being held this year in Athlone IT on 21st and 22nd May. I look forward to hearing him again. Also in 2005 Clive Shephard also comments on the "1 pager"  idea in his "Clive on Learning" blog where he also tells a very funny, but very interesting story about the Emperor's New Slide Show (make sure to check out this post - it is a must read). 

I would like to try a "1 pager" out, but I feel that I would get a lot of student complaints if the notes for a lecture were just one slide. Of course I could supply some "notes" separately - but there is a expectation among students today that they will get a lot of notes from their lecturers. A "1 Pager" presentation will definitely get over the "Death by PowerPoint Syndrome", a nice idea - but will it work in a class? Here's the dilemma - how do we make class more interesting, but at the same time give the students what they want - i.e, lots of notes? I will commit here to trying out a "1 pager" very soon. It may be possible to try it out at EdTech 2010 - assuming my paper proposal is accepted ;-)). Another possibility is to try it out at a seminar, or in a less pressurized setting where there is no expectation of taking away pre-prepared notes.

Dr Stephen Kinsella writes today in his "sans slideware" debate that the best slides are beautiful, but really, information-free, and he concludes...

Think what sitting there, watching slide after slide after slide, does to the learner. They are passive, bored, and complex information is chopped up and fed to them relentlessly over 2 hours. Much better to engage them, to ask them questions, ask them to participate, perhaps even make something. No slideware program can help do that.

I see "bored" learners every day - I'm certain that many can recall a very low percentage of what a lecture was about within hours of the lecture being over. Recently in a class on Management Information Systems I got the students to do an exercise on the well known Robin Hood case study written by Joseph Lampel. To get the students in the mood I played an extract of a Robin Hood series on YouTube and sang along in front of the class to "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Riding through the Glen...." before the exercise - I bet they'll remember that! I have to remember that I am an educator and not an entertainer - but this was an interactive exercise carried out without the help of PowerPoint.

Question - do you provide printouts of your notes to students? I stopped doing this since the introduction of Moodle in NCI. Not because of saving trees or carbon footprint, not because it reduces printing costs to the College, not to save students the bother of writing notes in class, and not even because I want to ensure that students actually get a copy of the notes into their hands. The main reason is that students can choose their own way of printing out the notes (6, 3, 2, or 1 to a page), print in colour or Black-and-White, and print some pages but not others. Or if they want - not to print them out at all, some may prefer to read the notes on a screen, or download onto an iPod.

In July 2009, T.X Hammes in his essay for the Armed Forces Journal called "Dumb-dumb bullets" refers to PowerPoint as the "antithesis of thinking". The context here is on decision-making in the armed forces. In the article, Hammes states:

Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them.

He goes on to examine the use of PowerPoint in the Armed Forces. In particular I like his comments that ...Most damaging is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points and  ...Future historians are going to hate the PowerPoint era. While I recommend that your read Hammes' article, keep in mind the context - he actually states that ...PowerPoint can be highly effective if used purely to convey information — as in a classroom (my emphasis) or general background brief, and goes on to make the point that PowerPoint particularly good if strong pictures or charts accompany the discussion of the material.

Finally, what makes a good presenter? Is it that important that a Lecturer is also a good presenter? One of the best presenters is of course Steve Jobs of Apple. One thing to note about his keynote presentations is that his slides are minimal, hardly ever have text, and make use of simple graphics (almost always only one-at-a-time on screen). But he has probably got a small army of graphics designers and script writers to help him out. Us humble lecturers do not have such resources, but there is no harm in sitting back and looking at the master in action - check out the following video Present Like Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo of BNET:

Now wouldn't it be great to get cheering from students in a lecture as Jobs does from his audience?

In my next post on this subject I will give some of my own tips and techniques for making better use of PowerPoint in class. Can't wait? Check these comments out from MetaFilter.

"Death by PowerPoint" image above is a link to an image from

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