Tuesday, April 3, 2007

PowerPoint Without a Point

Edward Tufte is a professor emeritus of political science, computer science and statistics, and graphic design at Yale. In his article PowerPoint Is Evil, Tufte writes:

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something (Tufte, 2003).

According to Tufte, a PowerPoint slide may have contributed to the mistaken conclusion reached by NASA engineers that the space shuttle Columbia could safely re-enter the Earth's atmosphere despite possible damage to its wing from a falling piece of foam upon takeoff ( The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint).

I believe that Tufte's analysis has many convincing points. He considers that “PowerPoint is like being trapped in the style of early Egyptian flatland cartoons rather than using the more effective tools of Renaissance visual representation” ( Tufte's Forum , August 21, 2006). Today, many presenters try to overcome PowerPoint's “flat” effect by using Flash-based tools like Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional or Gapminder .

I agree that “a bad PowerPoint presentation is a symptom of the writer's failure” (Communication Partners, 2003). It is a presenter's responsibility to design clear, simple, and effective slides. If used correctly, PowerPoint presentation could be “a medium for creative expression” (Byrne, 2003).

Doug Johnson describes how students design PowerPoint presentations:

The slideshow contains flying bullet points, loud sound effects, unreadable fonts, and tedious clip art mismatched to the slide's content. And the student not only has little to say, but manages to say that poorly. It's the phenomena commonly referred to as "PowerPointlessness" (Johnson, 2005).

How can teachers use PowerPoint effectively in the classroom?

Recently, I found helpful information on Tufte's Forum. I liked Jose Silva's idea of the “Swiss-Army-Knife” model of presentation preparation. For his presentations, Silva uses Microsoft Word, InDesign, Mathematica (for formulas), Stata (for statistical summaries), Illustrator, Photoshop, and Keynote.

In teaching PowerPoint to students, I would suggest educators to experiment with different software and multimedia tools and follow simple steps:

1. Ask your students to design their own background in a PowerPoint presentation. My students often apply different fill effects. Do not use PowerPoint templates.

2. Encourage students to create original stories. First, they have to research a problem on the Internet and create a storyboard. I usually ask students to type text directly into the PowerPoint file because transferring information from Microsoft Word might create some layout problems.

3. Do not allow students to use images from the Internet or clip art. Students should create their own original images in Paint, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Fireworks.

4. Demonstrate to students that dark text on a light background is easier to read. It would be valuable if you could familiarize students with Robin Williams' “The Non-Designer's Design Book” (Williams, 2003). We have this book at the Technology Department.

5. Explain that it is essential to use references. Discuss issues related to plagiarism.

6. Ask students to keep animations and transitions consistent and use sound effects sparingly.

7. Encourage students to present their projects. Since children tend to read the whole presentation, provide the clear guidelines for public speaking: don't read word for word, rephrase, stand up straight, face the class, and keep eye contact with the teacher and friends.

8. After the presentation, ask students to comment each others' work and express their opinion how the project could be improved.

9. Save a PowerPoint presentation as a Web page, or produce a movie with screen recording software as Camtasia Studio, or upload PowerPoint presentation on SlideShare -- this would inspire students and stimulate them to work better.

View my 5th graders PowerPoint projects -- Computer Stories, From Butterfly to Caterpillar, and Fairy Tale.


Teaching Sagittarian said...

Thank you for sharing these excellent tips! My class are going to be making powerpoints for Stop Cyberbullying when they return from two weeks break. If it's ok with you we will be looking at the incredibly high standard of work in powerpoint by your 5th Graders as an example of quality work.

Maya Bentz said...

I am so glad that you liked my students’ projects. You are welcome to download PowerPoint files and show them to your students. All images were created in Illustrator. What a great idea to make PowerPoint presentations about Cyberbullying! I hope to see your students’ projects on your blog.