Monthly Archives: June 2013

Death By PowerPoint. And Prezi. And Presentations in General.

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I recently wrapped up a three-day technology integration workshop with some friends at an independent school north of Boston.  Over the course of our time together, we discussed everything from theories of learning with technology to best practices for delivering content, collaborating in Google Drive to institutional policies that affect teachers’ use of technology in the classroom.  And while we explored some new tools (TimelineJS) and ways of thinking about using technology to differentiate instruction, one of the most enduring questions in the back of my mind was that asked by one participant about using Prezi.

“Prezi,” I replied, “I don’t know.  I’m jaded about Prezi.”  As I climbed on my soapbox and began to pontificate on why bad Prezi presentations are just as bad – if not worse – than bad PowerPoint presentations, I flashed back to the last two weeks of classes at my school.  During those last weeks, the hallways and computer labs are aflutter after school with high school students prepping for final assessments: large group projects, research papers, and of course, high-stakes presentations.  Fast forward to the last days before final exams, and one can hear across campus the monotone droll of country-club attired young adults anxiously delivering to their peers a laundry list of information that was gathered using a combination of Google, Wikipedia, and not-well understood journal articles or other primary resources (of which they no doubt struggled to grasp because of esoteric higher academic language and the ever uninteresting format of “introduction, problem statement, methods, results, conclusions”).

Now, don’t get me wrong – one of my favorite genres of literature is that same esoteric, confusingly written research that peer-reviewers take years to publish (and upon which so many a tenured universityposition are validated), and I routinely find myself rapt by well-delivered lectures and presentations on what could probably be considered some of the most boring topics under study.  So why am I so jaded with Prezi and PowerPoint?  What is the disconnect for me, as an educator, between helping aspiring young scholars learn and develop their public speaking skills, and the mind-numbing boredom of their 5-10 minute long attempts at displaying some half-constructed knowledge on a topic that I would otherwise be fascinated to hear?

Another thing to understand is that I work at an independent school which has, for years, been a magnet for young athletes and aesthetes. Our drama program regularly wins prestigious acclaim both locally and in the greater Boston region, and our sports teams are heralded in the news for their dominating triumph across the field, court, and pool.  Performance, for manyof these students, is not an uncomfortable, or even a new, activity.  So why is standing in front of fifteen of their peers, speaking on a topic they have all studied relatively recently and in collaboration with one another, such a difficult, and often uninteresting experience?

We have all heard over the last decade of the “Death by PowerPoint” syndrome, which has prompted many an educator to explore other, and perhaps more lustrous, presentation tools.  But I fear that we are endlessly reproducing the effects of PowerPoint Death, only more rapidly and to a more pronounced effect, by thinking that a flashy new piece of software is going to make the flow of information from speaker to audience more captivating, richer, or even more efficient. Indeed, this has been my experience over the last four or five years: someone (perhaps a techie maven at a school) gives a presentation using new tool that has better designed fonts, snappier animations, and maybe even a drop shadow or two, and suddenly everyone’s eyes light up at the novelty of this new sensory input.  Folks begin hopping on the bandwagon, and before long, there is enough buzz about this new presentation software that even the most luddite teachers know about it. Some may even encourage some of their students to use it on their next presentation assignment.  But amidst all of the hullabaloo created by someone’s demonstration of this shiny new product, people often begin to struggle rather quickly with the technological differences between it and older, more enduring standbys, like PowerPoint.  Soon, the novelty of twisty slide transitions and crazy zooming of text around a canvas becomes just as mundane as plain, bulleted lists on a white background, and we start to realize that the words coming out of our students’ mouths are just as poorly formed, understood, and delivered, as they were when overhead projectors were still considered “technology” (in fact, they are probably worse!).

The strengths of tools like Prezi, which can actually expand the possibilities of information design by allowing expert users to paint rich, flowing stories, are lost on most of us.  Why? Because to achieve such a level of expertise requires time, practice, and the ability to reflect upon and critique (at a high level of discourse) the affordances and constraints of its various functionalities.  In other words, it requires a level of technological and visual literacy that we do not often integrate into our curricula or instructional practices.  And who could blame us?  Is it really worth devoting valuable classroom time and energy to learning a piece of software that students will only use once or twice over the course of the year, or even their high school career?  Let me answer that now: no.  No, it is not.  So rather than confine a student’s ability to perform or exhibit what he or she has learned through hours of research and effort to some sort of poorly-used, and not well understood technology, or simply giving up and giving students a free-pass to bore their peers by reading the text off another poorlydesigned PowerPoint slide, how about reconsidering the presentation format at a much more general level?

Back on my soapbox the other day, I told my colleagues that I thought Microsoft Word was, in some cases, just as valid, if perhaps an even more effective, presentation tool than PowerPoint or Prezi.  After our three days of talking about technology integration and planning, one of my colleagues asked what I had meant by that statement.  I gave him some illustrative examples of people using various “simple” technologies in creative, “out of the box” ways, but on my way home, I realized that what I probably should have said was, “Why do youhave your students do these high-stakes presentations at all, anyway?”  While I understand the value of public speaking and demonstrating what one has learned through the venue of lecture-style presentations, more and more I find myself asking if there is a better way to achieve these goals without the burden of anxiety and the painful, or sometimesembarrassing experience, that it causes for both the speaker and the listener.  If I answered that question myself – why have students do presentations – I probably could not come up with any answers that differ from the typical responses about developing public speaking skills or communicating one’s understanding of a concept.  As I think about it more, if “public speaking” is a valuable skill for exhibiting one’s understand, and facilitating others’ learning, why does it have to performed as a presentation?  As teachers, we know that while standing and delivering is sometimes an effective method of instruction, so are group discussion, well-planned activities, and mentoring.  In other words, “teaching.”  Does one need PowerPoint to teach?  While PowerPoint may enhance some delivery of content, I would argue that one certainly does not.  So why not have students learn to “teach,” a concept, rather than stand awkwardly at the front of the room, reading some bulleted text verbatim off a slide?  When I go back to my original comment about MS Word being just as effective as PowerPoint or Prezi, I think this is what I meant to say:

A presentation of knowledge shouldn’t be about the content one is delivering, it should be about the experience of engaging one’s audience, stirring some interesting conversation, and sparking some curiosity.  Doing this effectively requires a lot more flexibility, versatility, and understanding of the topic than it takes to put some slides together and grab a few images from Google.  If a student can do that with PowerPoint or Word, fantastic.  But what about through dance, by creating a lesson plan, by producing a video, by painting a mural, or by some other mode of performance that facilitates their peers’ understanding of the concept?  Sometimes I think it is too easy and tempting to put the proverbial technology cart before the horse.  We want students to learn some fluidity and skills using different technology tools, but if doing so comes at the expense of one’s pedagogical goals or the higher level thinking, what is the point?  Are you trying to bore us to death?