All entries for Monday 16 August 2004

August 16, 2004

Is PowerPoint evil?

Writing about web page

Hard to disagree with Edward Tufte; if anybody knows information and its presentation it's him. And PowerPoint is Microsoft, right, so it's already get two strikes. And when Tufte writes:-

If your words or images are not on point, making them dance in color won't make them relevant. Audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure. At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play – very loud, very slow, and very simple.

… it's hard for anyone who's sat through too many slides with too few words on them not to silently nod in agreement. And yet. Isn't there a hint of straw man about this? Tufte argues that since PowerPoint slides have few words on them, it takes a lot of slides to advance an argument of any complexity, and since you can't see all the slides at once, the argument isn't well presented. And that's true. But if we're talking about teaching and learning, what this makes me think is not "PowerPoint is evil", but rather "What sort of idiot would present an argument using PowerPoint?". That's just not what it's for.

Tufte is confusing a cultural tendency – more and more things are becoming like sales pitches, so there is more awful PowerPoint than there used to be in the world – with the tool itself. When I use PP, it's to signal in outline what I'm going to talk about in detail; it reminds me and shows my audience what the shape of my talk is. It's never to try to explain or display complicated things. If you ask yourself "Are OHPs evil?" or "Is acetate evil?", isn't it less tempting to say "Yes"?

But really, I'm being devil's advocate here; I think PowerPoint actually is evil, because it's not like an OHP; it commits one deadly sin that an OHP doesn't; it tries to help. All of a sudden, instead of being a blank page except for what you write, like acetate, you've got templates. Fonts. Colours. Clipart. Auto-bulleted-lists. Put in a few numbers and you'll be offered a magic graph of them, regardless of whether it's a good graph. The idea is to make the presenter look smart, but the effect is to flatten out individuality so that every presentation looks like a corporate selling job. And that's why it sucks.

The seats are bolted to the floor

Writing about web page

My new favourite analogy for VLEs:-

The analogy I often make with Blackboard is to a classroom where all the seats are bolted to the floor. How the room is arranged matters. If students are going to be having a class discussion, maybe you put the chairs in a circle. If they will be doing groupwork, maybe you put them in groups. If they are doing lab work, you put them around lab tables. A good room set-up canít make a class succeed by itself, but a bad room set-up can make it fail.

That's dead right. You can change the appearance of BlackBoard, you can turn its various functions on or off. But you can't escape the fact that it's got a pedagogy built right into it, and the pedagogy is US-based and centred around the role of the instructor (and I say instructor rather than teacher or academic deliberately).

Student autonomy

Writing about web page

Content is the seed crystal on which interactions accumulate…

(and by interactions the author is describing the ways in students can learn collaboratively with each other rather than in a traditional, teacher-led style.)

That's an elegant description, I think, of the way we are starting to think about the tools we would like to provide to support e-learning. We aren't, or shouldn't be, in the business of trying to create online content which mimics, or duplicates, materials which are already well-delivered via a textbook or a lecture. Content online needs to serve different purposes, to trigger other processes, rather than being an end in itself.

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