Use and abuse
PowerPoint was the first piece of popular, learning, presentation ‘software’, in the IT sense (writing and the alphabet are software in a wider sense). Few pieces of software have simultaneously been so used and abused. Most teachers, instructors, trainers and lecturers use it or something similar, yet most learners have frequently experienced its misuse. It has been a victim of its own success in that most of its users know little about its proper use in relation to learning, and as it is so easy to create content, they overload their slides and learners’ brains.
A little known fact is that PowerPoint was originally designed for the Mac. The company was later bought by Microsoft and ported for use. Launched as part of Microsoft Office in 1990, it was easy to learn, required no training (few to this day go on a PowerPoint course) and had lots of whizzy features for spicing up presentations. Later versions allowed media objects to be easily shown and PowerPoint decks are now commonly used in webcasts or made available on the web through Slideshare.
Every technology needs user skills and there is perhaps no piece of teaching technology so easy to abuse than PowerPoint. There’s even an Anti-Powerpoint Party that gives awards for bad PowerPoint slides.
Witness the well known phrase ‘death by PowerPoint’.
In a sense PowerPoint is so easy to use that it tips into overuse. There is a tendency to take existing print content and translate that to the screen and literally machine gun the audience to death with innumerable bullet points.
The problem of excessive text comes from a deep adherence to print culture in education and training. Few teachers, trainers or lecturers have an understanding on how to use the different media of text, images, audio and video in learning. Media mix skills are thin on the ground. The default, therefore, is text and lots of it. This leads to cognitive overload, cognitive dissonance, a mismatch of media to learning objectives and excessive cognitive noise. Watch this for some fun.
Sixty slides of dense text and bullet points will lose the attention of even the most interested audience, yet text heavy slides remain the norm. A failure to chunk the information into a small number of points or cut the text down to actual bullet points and not full sentences and paragraphs is a common failure. Even then, text on screen distracts the learner from the speaker. If you are talking, then the leaner’s attention has to be on what you say, not what you’ve written.
To read out text that is already on the slides is criminal, unless it is for comic effect or occasional emphasis. Our audio and visual channels are different and if the audience is reading lots of text on the screen, they are not listening to the speaker. Too much text is therefore counterproductive. Reading out the same text as appears on the screen doesn’t help as we read much faster than we speak, so the audience is likely to be bored by this approach. The see-sawing between speaker’s voice and dense text is destructive.
PowerPoint allows you to have fancy fonts, clashing colour schemes that make text difficult to read, too many fonts confuse and unnecessary animation adds little. Less is more in PowerPoint as learning requires, attention, meaning, chunking and simple cues for retention. Noise is a distraction.
Does PowerPoint over-simplify?
However, there is also the danger of the over-simplification of knowledge and processes. Tuft in his book The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint describes how NASA adopted a ‘pitch culture’ even for highly technical issues and that this partly caused the fatal flight of the Columbia Space Shuttle. The military, for example, have been criticised for relying too much on PowerPoint for briefings, at the expense of context. Some senior military personnel have banned PowerPoint for this reason.
PowerPoint can easily become a substitute for considered teaching. A deck of slides rather than truly considered content and genuine communication with students is all too common. As a teaching aid, it can support bad teaching.
It has also been suggested that PowerPoint encourages too many people with poor presentation and teaching skills to present and that it acts as a false prop, replacing the necessary communication skills needed to get messages across. Those fearful of speaking and engaging with a large audience can delegate responsibility to their slides.
I gave a TEDx talk last year and the speaker advice was crisp.
· Do not rely on Powerpoint
· No long lists of bullet points
· No podium or lectern
· Don't read your talk
· Enter from audience
· Reveal something never seen before
· Give examples. Tell stories
· Connect with people's emotions
· Controversy energizes!
Quite simply, they’re here to experience your talk not your PowerPoint.
PowerPoint has undoubted benefits, when used well. When used badly it can be detrimental, even disastrous to teaching and communication. In the end it perpetuates the tradition of teacher technology that promotes straight presentation from blackboards, overhead projectors and other lecture type tools.