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