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Beyond PowerPoint

August 15, 2001

In his recent New Yorker article, "Absolute PowerPoint," Ian Parker examines the history of PowerPoint and how it has changed the way we communicate. Parker's position is that, for the most part, PowerPoint's pervasive influence (primarily in the business sector, but also in the academic world) is reductive; it distills ideas to bullet points to be presented, not discussed. He suggests, "PowerPoint…has a private, interior influence. It edits ideas…it helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world" (76).

He goes on to explain that the PowerPoint AutoContent Wizard (the tool that gives you templates for various kinds of presentations when you first open PowerPoint), developed in the mid-'90s, was originally conceived as a joke by PowerPoint developers, "Punch the button and you'll have a presentation" (87). Parker refers the reader to a humorous site, www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/, in which the Gettysburg Address has been reduced to bullet points, using the AutoContent Wizard. He also cites a Stanford Sociology Professor who admits that he decided not to require a text for a course he was teaching because the ideas in the book were too complex to "PowerPoint" into a lecture presentation for his class.

Okay. Alarm bells might be starting to ring, if they haven't already been ringing down deep somewhere for a while. In the online educational environment, PowerPoint slideshows are a common tool for delivering content. Many professors who develop online courses use PowerPoint slideshows that they have already created for their face-to-face lectures. They drop them into their online course because it is often the quickest and easiest way to populate an online course shell with some semblance of content.

PowerPoint Slideshows are meant to illustrate a spoken presentation or lecture, and they are useful because they can sequence and illustrate key points. However, without audio annotations or text annotations, online slideshows are often difficult for students to follow. Students have to read between the bullet points and try to make sense of them on their own; guessing at what the professor might have elaborated on. It is possible and quite easy to record audio lectures to accompany online PowerPoint slideshows, and many online instructors do this.

Indeed, if audio annotations are used in an online course, they make PowerPoint presentations more useful for students, but we're still left with the issues Parker unearths in his New Yorker article-presenting instead of engaging.

Essentially, bullet-pointed slideshows use the old-fashioned model of lecturing to teach. That is, if we use PowerPoint as a dominant mode of content delivery, we are simply using this new online educational environment to fit old ways of teaching (lecturing). The multi-dimensional online educational environment, on the other hand, asks us to embrace new and more effective teaching strategies that involve communication, collaboration, and project-based learning. Even Cathleen Belleview, the designer of the "Screen Bean" clip art characters that we've all seen in so many PowerPoint slideshows, is quoted in Parker's article as saying, "…we as a people have become unaccustomed to having real conversations with each other, where we actually give and take to arrive at a new answer. We present to each other, instead of discussing" (86).

So, how should we respond to the dominance of PowerPoint and its influence in standardizing the way we engage (and think) with each other in our culture, especially in regard to education and teaching?

First, we can acknowledge that PowerPoint, used traditionally, is indeed useful in laying out a sequence of material that may be helpful to the learner, especially if the slideshow is voice-annotated. Slideshows can address aural and visual learning styles. However, a slideshow should be seen as only one element in a course.

PowerPoint should be seen as a resource for active learning exercises and assignments. Active learning activities should be at the core of an online learning situation, not presentations.

Active learning has been defined in many ways. Often, active learning teaching strategies include student participation in goal setting and involvement in creating the educational process. Active learning posits that the instructor is a facilitator, not a presenter. Perhaps the most common definition of active learning is that it is a problem-solving approach. Exercises are designed using practical, real-world problems or cases in which students must bring to bear their own knowledge and creativity and must find resources to help them solve the problem or dilemma.

Active learning makes knowledge retention deeper and more permanent. In addition, active learning is often done in collaborative ways, within teams that solve problems. In the online environment, this means using threaded discussions, chats and emails - not just viewing PowerPoint slideshows and reading textbooks to prepare for tests.

Thus, one response to the dominance of PowerPoint is simply to view it as a launching point for an active learning exercise that asks students to apply what has been presented with pithy bullet points and punctuated with clip art.

Another response to PowerPoint's dominant organizational agenda, especially to its inherent linearity, is to creatively twist its features so that it becomes an interactive hypertext exercise or self quiz, by linking to other slides from one main slide. Using the PowerPoint Slideshow Action Setting in this way, it is possible to provide students an activity or game to interact with the material so they can discover it in whatever sequence that works for them. Click here to see an example.

As Parker points out, "According to Microsoft estimates, at least thirty million PowerPoint presentations are made every day" (85). As online educators, we can at least begin to work on transforming the concept of PowerPoint from "presenting at" into "a way of promoting discussion" or to use it in unconventional ways to create more effective learning situations.



       --Stephen Shugart, MFA

Reference

Parker, Ian. "Absolute PowerPoint" New Yorker. 28 May 2001: 76 - 87.