OK. Perhaps not evil. But this is why I’ve taken PowerPoint out of my toolbox for teaching. It boils down to the reality that I can use other tools that provide me with equivalent — if not better — results.
First, what do we use PowerPoint for? It’s classified as presentation software. That means we use it as audio/visual support when we stand up and make a presentation. It was designed to provide that visual hook — the eyeball organizer — to keep the audience focused and organized. Unfortunately we now have teachers using it to put their whole lesson up on the screen — one page at a time — with too many words per slide, a signal to noise ratio that is thru the floor, and a mis-guided belief that by putting it on the screen they’re reaching “visual learners.” So, I’d have less heartburn with the use of the tool if people used it better.
Second, where is it intended to be used? In a room. It was never intended to be put online. The online PowerPoint is a horror from the standpoint of message design and accessibility. PowerPoint is NOT a web design interface. Adding the “audio track” for the lecture — or combining PowerPoint and audio in third party tools like Breeze is simply an attempt to replicate the lecture experience. Unfortunately, lecture is seldom the best tool for communicating information.
Keeping that in mind, PowerPoint can be a useful tool. One interesting approach is the Takahashi Method where a Japanese programmer used single words on the screen. This seems to be effective for japanese audiences where the words are pictographs but might not be as effective for English speaking audiences. For English speaking audiences Dick Hardt from Sxip may have the definitive use of PowerPoint in his presentation on Identity 2.0 from the OSCON 2005 convention.
Now compare those ideas to the bloated, text rich, cartoon laden presentations typical of classrooms and conferences from around the world.
Rachel pointed out that her school requires her to “use technology” and that PowerPoint is a recognized technology that can be placed in a portfolio. Several of you suggested that having students use PowerPoint to create projects for presentation to the class is a good strategy for getting kids to organize their thinking. Further, when you’re called on to speak at a conference, it’s the rare individual who can pull off the talk without giving the audience something to look at.
Granted. If you MUST use PowerPoint, at least learn to use it right.
Nate’s Five Rules
First Rule: No more than five ideas in the talk. Arrange them from least to most important. The audience will remember the last idea, maybe the first idea, but will almost assuredly forget the middle three. One idea is best, but you usually have to deconstruct that idea into components, so no more than five of those.
Second Rule: No more than five lines per slide. No more than seven words per line. Remember Cognitive Loading. You’re trying to pour information through the short term memory without overloading the brain. Even using the slide build tools to introduce points one at a time doesn’t help as the slide becomes more and more complicated. You want the slide to be a visual placeholder — a kind of visible re-inforcement/organizer for your message. If it becomes your message, then you don’t need to be there.
Third Rule: Avoid background images. Putting graphics behind text makes the text hard to read by changing the contrast values for words displayed across the variated color scheme. If you want to put a small logo in someplace where text isn’t going to display across it, ok, but avoid the use of full screen background images.
Fourth Rule: Only use graphics that contribute to the message. A pie chart to demonstrate mathematical relationships is good. A clip art cartoon of hands shaking to “represent agreement” is not. Avoid the graphics that you want to add for “visual interest” or “atmosphere” because if you need it to keep the audience interested, then your message is too weak. I work with one teacher who wants to put a picture on every slide to “keep the audience engaged.” It doesn’t work that way. If they’re not engaged in your message, then what are you doing??
Fifth Rule: Short. Make your points then spend the rest of the time talking with the audience about it.
What to Use Instead
If your message is being delivered in a room with the normal amount of computer/projector equipment, probably PowerPoint is fine if you follow the Five Rules. As an instructional tool, where students use the simplified interface of PowerPoint to organize and inform their peers, and where they are too young to use more sophisticated tools (like in a K-3 classroom), that’s probably fine. I’m aware that you don’t want to spend time teaching kids how to use complex tools when you need them to be learning US Geography or Fractions. I’m also aware that you, as teachers, need simple presentation tools that don’t require YOU to have to master arcane arts like HTML and CSS in order to make effective presentations. If you do not have access to the Microsoft PowerPoint tool, then there is a presentation tool available in the OpenOffice suite that can read and write PPT files and serves as an excellent tool for introducing students to the concepts of presentation without tying them to a tool that they may not be able to afford in their own lives.
But as soon as we move out of the room — and this IS a class on delivery at a distance — PowerPoint is your enemy for a variety of technical reasons. First, conversion to the web is far from trivial. Yes, you can “Save as HTML” but that saved presentation becomes unfortunately inaccessible when dealing with individuals with visual impairments and if you’ve used good design (Nate’s Five Rules) then the PowerPoint by itself is useless. Augmenting the PowerPoint often becomes an exercise in frustration for both the teacher and the learner.
If you are moving into web delivery, you must move into web technology and leave PowerPoint behind. There are several good web editors available that do not require huge investments in time. The current “buzz tool” is Dreamweaver but it comes with a price tag that would make outfitting a computer lab cost prohibitive. My recommendation would be Nvu because it works on Mac, PC, and Linux platforms and it’s free. Nvu tutorials abound on the web (Google “nvu tutorial”) and, because it’s cross platform, any tutorials developed for the Mac could be used on the PC, etc.
The value of web technology is that it does not require a server to create and display static web pages as you might create in lieu of a PowerPoint. Any web page created on a computer can be displayed in a browser on that computer without having a server involved. That means that students can create their presentations, place them on a diskette or thumbdrive, and use them on any other computer that has a browser on it. IF it becomes possible and/or desireable to make those presentations available to others, then putting them on a server for use outside the room is trivial (assuming that server space is available for class use and district policies are followed, etc).
Moreover, everything you can do in a PowerPoint slide, you can do on a web page. That actually includes things like transitions and builds, but to be honest, those are eye-candy that do little to promote your message. And on a web page you can do more than you can do in a PowerPoint because you have the full gamut of unbounded text and graphic. Sure you may set up a page that needs to scroll, but who cares? You’re not renting those electrons!
One rationale I heard for using PowerPoint is that it’s a skill students will need later. If that is true for PowerPoint, then how much MORE true is it that the advanced skills of web publication will be even MORE valued? For those who get graded on “use of technology” in your practice, how much more impressive would it be in your portfolio to show that you don’t need the “training wheels” any more?