[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user cogdogblog]
Somehow, PowerPoint has become, for many educators and researchers, the sine qua non of academic presentation. As though knowledge can only be communicated in a standardized digital format. As if rich concepts require this, in order to become intelligible. As though hollow half-thoughts will take life in this magical medium. The truth, in my observation, is far to the contrary.
I don’t know if my experience is atypical (though I’ve no reason to think it would be), but I’ve seen a lot of bad point presentations. Heck, I’ve probably given a lot of bad power point presentations. But, despite my conviction that PowerPoint often detracts from good content, and further muddles questionable work, I continue to toe the line and articulate my work into this format. The problem is that I often can’t tell if my presentation is working or not. This is my primary concern about the medium, which I’ll return to below. First, a bit of history is in order.
A couple of years ago I attended an interdisciplinary academic retreat for postgraduate students. And amongst the monotonous onslaught of ppt after ppt after ppt, one of my close friends, a philosophical mind of the first order (and something of a self-avowed Luddite), took the stage and just spoke. Without the visual aide, or intrusion, of a PowerPoint. Now, I’m very familiar with the man’s work, which is, in a word, brilliant; his presentation on that occasion was no exception. Yet the audience greeted him as an oddity, offering him half-hearted applause, limited intellectual engagement, and the kind of contemptuously lukewarm questions that make an academic lose sleep. Now far be it for me to claim a transcendent knowledge of others’ motivations, but, given the widely varied topics of the day, the only standout feature of my colleague’s presentation was the format. My hunch: the audience couldn’t reconcile themselves to the anomaly of a PowerPoint-free presentation. This anecdote lies at the heart of my conviction that PowerPoint has become a symptom of academics’ and researchers’ collective madness.
Powerpoint has been with us for quite some time now (if you consider a couple of decades to be ‘quite some time’). Interestingly, this quintessential Microsoft product, and mainstay of the office suite, initially had nothing to do with Microsoft, or the Windows OS. In fact, it was originally called “Presenter” and was developed in the 1980s by a company called Forethought Inc. for use on Macs. It wasn’t until 1990, when the first edition of Microsoft Office was released, that PowerPoint was introduced on the Windows platform. Since then, it has been developed as a staple of the Windows ecosystem and has become synonymous with the Windows experience. Never one to concede market share willingly, Microsoft has also been diligent in developing their Office suite for the Mac OS, making it the de facto standard for digital presentations across platforms (though it’s not so much the idea of a specific software product, as the pedagogical implications of general digital incompetence, that concern me here).
PowerPoint has rightly become the subject of significant critique, and some degree of scholarly scrutiny. Tufte has provocatively declared PowerPoint to be “evil,” and offered a thoughtful and rigorous treatise on “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” (the interested reader can access the Coles notes version at the Wired magazine archive: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html). Additionally, an interesting body of research suggests that while postsecondary students may show a preference for PowerPoint, and benefit from slide presentations used effectively (Apperson, Laws & Scepansky, 2008), poorly developed presentations unsurprisingly correlate with worse learning outcomes (Bartsch & Cobern, 2003). Even the scientists at NASA have weighed in, suggesting that ineffective PowerPoint use may have been a contributing factor in the Columbia space shuttle’s crash. Evidently, there is some substance to concerns that ‘PowerPoint is evil’, ‘PowerPoint Makes You Dumb,’ and that as academics and educators we are dying a ‘death by PowerPoint’…
There are a lot of manifest problems with the way PowerPoint presentations are often delivered: PowerPoint content so dislocated from the presenter’s spoken content that it becomes unintelligible, or at the other end of the spectrum presenters simply reading slides verbatim (calling into question the need for a presenter in the first place). Or, slides that are hopelessly packed with an overabundance of hierarchically indistinguishable information (NASA’s concern), or slides with fragmented bullet points that just don’t make sense. My own main pet peeve is any disjuncture between spoken content and slide content such that one is forced to choose—either try to follow the content of the slides, or the presenter’s speech. Ultimately, the audience’s understanding of both is bound to suffer.
So, What is to be Done?
Now I’m not trying to vilify the PowerPoint program itself. Quite the contrary. Over the years it’s become a remarkably powerful, feature-rich tool. But the learning curve of its users appears not to have matched the developmental trajectory of the software itself. The idea seems to be that: a bad PowerPoint is better than no PowerPoint at all, which, to me, is crazy (as stated above, I don’t consider myself exempt from this irrationality). In its lifetime PowerPoint has gone through numerous versions, with ever-escalating functionality and, arguably, technical complexity. The latest, greatest version, PowerPoint 2013 is a dizzying cornucopia of features. But I’m hard-pressed to see how it offers any significant advantages to the average user, relative to, say, PowerPoint 2010 or 2007. And it seems that the average user would largely be unable to take full advantage of the features in previous versions anyways.
My intent, however, is not merely to complain about a perceived fault in our academic habitus. In my view, this is a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution. The underlying challenge, it seems, is: as digital technologies’ complexity grows, the infrastructure or our educational needs to follow suite. Presently, I believe, our training is often, simply, lacking. I believe this certainly extends beyond PowerPoint to a significant range of technologies that might enhance our effectiveness as researchers, educators, and professionals. And I think the solution is: educational reform.
In fact, I think the educational reform we require is already taking place at the grade-school level, where computers, and training in computer skills, are increasingly ubiquitous elements in the curricula. My hope is that this will produce a shift in the way we structure post-secondary learning (though in the least, we’re bound to get crops of students who are more-and-more tech savvy when they reach the undergraduate level).
My basic vision is this: compulsory technology education for students in all faculties, at minimum through the first two years of their undergraduate work. I’m not talking about some diluted ‘modular’ training, which offers a superficial introduction to PowerPoint/Word/Refworks. Rather, I’m advocating full-scale coursework designed to provide a range of technical expertise, including:
- productivity software, like the Office Suite, but also
- creative software, including graphic design and video editing,
- operating systems, including Mac OS, Windows, and the dominant mobile platforms, like Android and IOS,
- skills for making effective use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube come most readily to mind), and scholarly media (Moodle, Blackboard, etc.), and
- a foundational introduction to creating websites—how to register a domain, secure webhosting, and set up a basic WP site, etc.
I’m talking about training for meaningful competencies in the relevant technologies of a digital world. Ideally, my pedagogical utopia would see this implemented throughout undergraduate programs and graduate programs, though I recognize that the increased specialization of upper-undergraduate years and graduate study may be foundation for a counter-argument. One might, reasonably, query: “what has graphic design got to do with a degree in the physical sciences?” However, I believe the argument is to be validated from a wider view of education’s purposes. It’s not merely a romantic ideal to say that education should enhance and improve one’s life. It should. To this end, sophisticated digital competencies are of clear utility. Additionally, the wearisome questions about the value of “arts degrees” might be turned on their head if we were producing graduates who could translate their creativity into viable digital media and, thereby, make themselves competitive in a global market that prioritizes these skills. We live in a day and age of immeasurably powerful and increasingly complex technology. Standardizing competency in these core technologies seems more and more like a basic necessity. Most importantly though, such a reform might mean we’d no longer need to endure so many terrible PowerPoints.
Adams, C. (2006). PowerPoint, habits of mind, and classroom culture. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38 (4): 389-411.
Apperson, J.M., Laws, E.L. & J.A. Scepansky. (2008). An assessment of student preferences for PowerPoint presentation structure in undergraduate courses. Computers and Education, 50 (1): 148-153.
Bartsch, R.A. & K.M. Cobern. (2003) Effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations in lectures. Computers and Education, 41 (1): 77-86.