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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

Is PowerPoint Evil?

We've all seen students standing proudly in front of the class using PowerPoint or another multimedia application. The slideshow contains flying bullet points, loud sound effects, unreadable fonts, and tedious clip art mismatched to the slide's content. And the student not only has little to say, but manages to say that poorly. It's the phenomena commonly referred to as "PowerPointlessness." It happens often enough that educators have been asking, "Should kids be learning and using multimedia presentation programs in school at all?"

I've weighed in on this topic once already in a 1999 column Slide Show Safety. The question I tried to answer in that column was not if one should use PowerPoint, but how one can use it well. As with a frightening number of things I wrote long ago, I've found that my thoughts haven't changed much -- which says more about my obstinacy than my prescience. You've been warned.

Here are the main things I'd think about when looking at working with kids and multimedia programs of any kind:

1. PowerPoint doesn't bore people: people bore people. As an old speech teacher, I have a bias that PowerPoint falls under the category of visual aid -- with aid being the operative word. If we are teaching kids how to use this software, it needs to be within the context of good speaking skills, not in a computer class. (But of course all technology skills should be taught within the content areas.) Yup, the old stuff like eye contact, expression, and gestures are still important. As is having something worthwhile to say. All the flying bullet points in the world won't make up for an interesting message and a compelling delivery style.

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2. The sins of the overhead user shall be visited upon the computer user. Edward R. Tufte, in his booklet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Graphics Press, 2003), makes a compelling case that complex information is not best shared using this software. He argues persuasively that PowerPoint makes it far too easy to reduce complex topics to simple bullet points. He argues that some graphic information is too detailed for the low-res graphics of the computer screen. I'm just not sure choosing the wrong tool for the wrong job is the tool's fault.

Students need to learn that multimedia presentations should be used to highlight their important points, clarify concepts through well-designed or well-chosen graphics, and as a means of helping organize their talk in the audience's mind. They are not simply a script writ large to be read to the group. (Something I wish more adult conference presenters would remember as well.)

3. There are more visual learners than meet the eye. Cautions aside, good visuals can be exceptionally powerful, and our kids need practice in harnessing that power. Too bad more teachers themselves don't have at least a fundamental knowledge of good design principles, knowledge of typography, and photocomposition. Before ever attempting to teach a multimedia program (or desktop publishing or web page construction), teachers should read Robin Williams' Non-Designer's Design Book (Peachpit Press, 2003) -- and then immediately delete all PowerPoint templates and cheesy clip art.

In the best of all possible worlds, an oral presentation accompanied by a well-designed slide show that helps inform or persuade an audience can be one of the products of a good research unit. I get the feeling a goodly number of our kids will one day be giving multimedia presentations as part of their jobs. They may as well do it skillfully.

Just keep in mind "Johnson's Rule of Technology Neutrality": Tools are neither good nor bad. The same hammer can both break windows and build cathedrals.

Your thoughts on pitfalls or promises of PowerPoint? What do you do to make sure the tool is being used well? E-mail me at [email protected].

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