Learning in the Dark

Lecturer with presentation
Lecturer with Presentation from Jiří Sedláček via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

PowerPoint must be the most popularly misused software on the planet.  Ever since it first appeared, we have used it badly and for all the wrong reasons. It has so much potential, but we have really made a muck of it, most of the time.

Printouts of Slides

Yesterday I went to a training workshop for volunteers. The people were lovely, and a lot of preparation had gone into the presentation. As a former Communications instructor, though, the first thing I noticed as we sat around the conference table, was that the presenter had behind her a huge LED screen that was not used.

Instead, she gave us a Duotang binder with thirty-four pages of printouts of the sixty PowerPoint slides she would have shown on a screen, if she had been using one.  In addition, we were given a ring binder of resources and activities, and we were occasionally shown short videos on a laptop from the other side of the table.

In fairness, the presentation was intended for a much larger audience over a longer period of time. We were just two volunteers benefitting from an accelerated instruction since we both already had some experience in the work we were to do. I am very grateful for the recognition of our skills. At the same time, I would love to send PowerPoint into the recesses of hell.

The Lost Art of Note-Taking

Students taking notes
Veterinary Students in Wisconsin by Tim 1965 via Wikimedia Commons

PowerPoint slides work best when they are an adjunct to an oral presentation and the slides are mostly of pictures.  As PowerPoint’s use has become more widespread, though, the slides have become instead a replacement for written notes. There is some evidence that learners actually benefit more from taking their own notes, but the slide presentation technology has become so ubiquitous that many people no longer know how to write notes effectively.

Now, presenters often provide printouts of the slides for their learners to jot notes on and to take home with them. In fact, if a college student has access to these notes online, they have a lot less incentive to attend classes. Also, textbook publishers provide instructors with slides for each chapter, and these have become the driving force behind lecture preparation.

It used to be the other way around; the lecturer would prepare the session from their own research and then develop presentation slides themselves. In providing PowerPoint slides and other instructional materials, classes have become increasingly centered on the textbook and less on the expertise of the instructor. I don’t know if that was a deliberate ploy of publishers, but it has resulted in ever more expensive and more frequently revised textbooks. Well done, publishers. You won.


PowerPoint slide with too much text
Powerpoint Kills Me From Beneath My Soul from mathbabe 

In lecture halls, classrooms, conference rooms, board rooms, and church basements, PowerPoint and its offspring, Prezi, presentations are being made all the time, and most of them use too many words. Twenty years ago, you could see slides with walls of words on them, which were impossible for the audience to read and comprehend. As time has gone by, we have learned to reduce the lines of text to about six and to increase the font size. Thank goodness.

Edward R. Tuft’s book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information was and is one of the most valuable insights into the ways in which audiences perceive all sorts of visual information, including PowerPoint slides. He has also written The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, which should be required reading for anyone who uses the technology. He says that “the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.”  Because of this, he has provided us with some techniques to overcome those problems.

There are many public speaking gurus out there who have advice on how to prepare slides, and they all have some good ideas. Some of them have become fixed in people’s minds as being “gospel” such as the 10-20-30 rule. (Use ten slides, speak for twenty minutes, and use a minimum thirty-point font.) Another popular guideline is that one should use one slide every minute, which would explain the sixty slide images in the Duotang I received yesterday.

Watching Star Wars on a Laptop

Master Yoda from Star Wars on a laptop
Master Yoda from Star Wars from NathanielOffer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

All of that is fine, if debatable, but I find it just a little bit odd to receive in hard copy the slide images that were designed to be delivered electronically.  It feels like a communicative step backwards somehow. When an image that was designed for a large screen is reproduced on to half a sheet of paper, is a bit like watching Star Wars on a laptop. It’s still a great story, but not nearly so impressive.

Having said all that, I understand why the workshop I attended used that technique. They had already done the work for a larger audience and it wasn’t worthwhile changing it for a smaller group and a shorter time frame. It only makes sense.

But, PowerPoint, I’m not letting you off the hook. You have given us a new way of presenting information, but you have taken something from us, too. By drawing attention away from the presenter, you have become a distraction. Your templates proscribe what we can put on each slide and so force instructors to teach according to your designs.  The ease of printing out the slides means that students no longer take notes, and thereby retain less.

Like so many technological advancements, PowerPoint, you have given us some new skills, and taken away some old ones. Turning back the clock is out of the question, and there is no hell to cast you into, so I guess I’m just going to have to live with you just the way you are. I don’t have to like it, though.





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