Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My legal separation from PowerPoint (and other presentation software tools)

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on how Bullet points make me crazy...and is in response to three separate incidents that happened today:
  • To paraphrase a colleague, who was reflecting on our recent collective endeavors to create presentations in support of various workshops, "I am not impressed with our creative use of PowerPoint lately."

  • A question from a student, "Why do you avoid using PowerPoint?...I get the sense that you have [specific] reasons...."

  • I have to submit a PowerPoint presentation to go along with a webcast I am participating in. The original talk, with presentation stack, was an hour long. The webcast will be 25 minutes long. My first reaction to the need to edit the stack was, "Oh, no, not this again...why do they need a PowerPoint slideshow anyway? Can't I just talk?..."
As a mentioned before, I am horrible with this category of tools. Here's a little background on my thoughts at a more general level (as opposed to the Joni-is-lousy-at-this level).

Presentation software, such as PowerPoint, has increasingly received criticism with regard to its misuse and overuse. For example, Edward Tufte, a leading expert on the visual representation of data and a vocal opponent of PowerPoint, compares PowerPoint to a prescription drug whose side effects “induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication” (Tufte, 2003, para 1). Although harshly stated, it is hard to argue with Tufte’s assessment of PowerPoint’s limitations; we have all sat through presentations that he could use as exemplars of his point, as illustrated by these choice comments:
Heard during a training-session break, One-hundred and thirty-one slides?!? What is this, death by PowerPoint? Can’t we just skip the presentation and get to what really matters?

Read on an evaluation form, We could have just read the slides ourselves. What a waste of time.

Seen on a mailroom bulletin board, PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people.

So, even if someone hasn't posted a critical critique of my lack of PowerPoint prowess on a mailroom bulletin board (or in her or his blog), I have a realistic view of my abilities with this tool, and know that I have been guilty of misusing and overusing presentation software.

I am a good-intentioned educator who knows what good teaching looks like and is up-to-speed on current learning theory. Yet time and time-again, I was turning to presentation software as a means for delivering the bulk of my training/workshop (although not course/classroom, thank goodness) content. If asked why, I would point to:

  • Time constraints – when you have limited time to cover a topic, presentation software can help you present the material quickly and succinctly, and can help you make sure you address all of the points you want to cover

  • Development efficiency – presentation software is easy to use and learn how to use; once you have built a presentation, it is easy to repurpose and reuse slides for a new presentation; once you create the slideshow, you automatically can also produce a handout for the audience and a script for yourself

  • Transferability – PowerPoint is everywhere, on every computer, so you don’t have to worry about technology support issues during delivery or when distributing to others

  • Professional credibility – the audience does not perceive you as an expert unless you have prepared a technology-enhanced presentation

  • Audience expectations – the audience is accustomed to the structure of a presentation slideshow, having experienced so many of them; if you are delivering a presentation, the audience expects you to support what you are saying with a slideshow (and expects a handout of the slides)

What is interesting to note is that my list does not include any mention of meeting crucial instructional outcomes, such as creating an interactive, engaging learning experience that supports learning and goal achievement. Given this disconnect between my reasons for using presentation software, what I want to accomplish instructionally during a presentation, my students’ seemingly universal dislike of PowerPoint-driven presentations, and my already well-established ineffective use of Powerpoint, I have excised (as much a possible) PowerPoint from my repertoire. This is not to say that I have given up, quite the contrary. I am constantly looking for better ways to deliver presentations without relying on PowerPoint, and I collect good examples of presentation stacks in the hope that I can change.

So, for the moment, PowerPoint and I are legally separated...not divorced. There is certainly a chance for reconciliation...maybe.

Side note: If you have a chance to see people like David Wiley or Stephen Downes present, you will see good examples of interesting speeches effectively supported with presentation software. In the meantime, here are a few examples of stacks I think work (all from Slideshare, a good resource for finding presentation-design inspiration):

And, for a fun example of the misuse of PowerPoint, please see the Gettysburg Powerpoint slideshow (and be sure to read the "making of" backstory).

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