PowerPoint doesn’t have to be passive

I recently had a heated discussion where someone was demonising PowerPoint because of the negative impact he thought it was having on education due to the often passive nature of its use, and it is true the vast majority of PowerPoint use within education would probably fall into the category of poor, with some being good, and a small percentage being excellent. In fact one of the things that persuaded me back in 2006 to go freelance, was in the space of a few weeks, I sat through 3 awful passive PowerPoint presentations about the importance of and how to do active learning.

But it is not the technologies fault – the technology is designed to do a job, and it does the job it is designed to do well. What is at fault is the people using it badly, and for that we need to go back to identify why, and it usually comes down to poor CPD for staff, and low expectations of what PowerPoint can do, which isn’t helped by many senior people in education standing up at conferences and the like and delivering appalling presentations.

In my early years of teaching, as I migrated from the then staple diet of death by OHT (Over Head Transparency) to using PowerPoint, my first attempts at PowerPoint were I am afraid what I would classify now as Death by PowerPoint, but I very quickly had one of those light bulb moments – I made a decision to never do death by PowerPoint again. Once I had made that decision everything else followed easily. I (like many other teachers) know what death by powerpoint looks like – so if I know what it looks like, if I am doing something that is heading that way, I don’t do it – I do something else. The key to me was bringing back the active elements of learning – getting the learners to do something, rather than just look at a load of pre-prepared bullet points on the screen that I talk about and expect learning to take place.

I worked on a principle of breaking my sessions down into smaller chunks of time, usually about 10-15 minutes. So I would talk for a bit, they would do for a bit, I would talk again, they would do something different, we would have a class discussion etc. It was this idea that lead me to creating countdown timers for PowerPoint which helped me manage the time for the different elements of active learning. I then discovered a really wonderful tool of the editable text box, allowing me to capture notes during a session, as part of a discussion activity or carrying out a ‘for’ and ‘against’ analysis. This saved me huge amounts of preparation time and hugely improved the activeness of the session.

I then used hyperlinking to create non-linear presentations, which has an array of uses and can be used to create some very effective learner directed resources, and there are many other things that I have done, and still do, all of which is designed to make the learning process active.

Going back to my opening statement of this post, the person I was discussing with, was all for promoting Prezi, which I don’t have a problem with as such (it doesn’t do anything for me, but I am a high level PowerPoint user) – but the issue is the same, unless staff have proper CPD and support we just get death by Prezi rather than Death by PowerPoint (only with Prezi you can get a bit of sea sickness thrown in for good measure).

When I first started working as a freelance trainer, a lot of the training that I ran was PowerPoint related. Over the years the amount of PowerPoint training I run has dwindled – I think many see it is ‘old hat’ and not needing training, which I wish was the case, but whilst I keep seeing lots of really bad PowerPoint presentations, I am very aware that there is still a need for teaching staff at all levels of education to have good quality PowerPoint training.

I am redeveloping some of my PowerPoint training sessions, one of which is titled ‘Making PowerPoint Active not Passive’ – which is introduced in the following video.

For further information visit http://www.a6training.co.uk/PowerPointActive.php

If you are interested in high quality PowerPoint training, that can be (and has been) delivered to all levels from Nursery through to HE , then visit http://www.a6training.co.uk/ for details.

9 Responses

  1. I agree, it’s all about how technology is used, rather than the tools themselves, although I find that Powerpoint can be a bit limiting as soon as you start adding media, don’t you think? And the animation interface a little… clunky.
    But a widely used tool still, so yes it’s better to get to know it better.
    (I find your posts always very well written. Good job.)

    • I agree that the animation interface and mechanism could be improved, to make it easier to understand and use. In terms of media, I don’t think PowerPoint does a bad job, it can handle audio, video, images quite well.

      Glad you like my posts.

  2. Excellent post, Dave, and well-timed for me as you have touched on issues that I have been thinking about a lot in the last few weeks – I seem to have recently attended more than my fair share of conferences/CPD events where the participants are talked AT for lengthy periods of time.

    I really like your idea of ‘death by Prezi’ being just like death by Powerpoint but with added seasickness. Only last week I attended a CPD event that included a deeply boring 50 minute ‘lecture’ using Prezi. Each slide consisted simply of a bullet point list, so the use of Prezi added nothing that could not have been achieved (by a beginner) in PowerPoint.

    For me the key sentences in your post are:

    “… getting the learners to do something, rather than just look at a load of pre-prepared bullet points on the screen that I talk about and expect learning to take place.”

    “breaking my sessions down into smaller chunks of time, usually about 10-15 minutes. So I would talk for a bit, they would do for a bit, I would talk again, they would do something different…”

    This commitment to an active approach contrasts utterly with your description of:

    “senior people in education standing up at conferences and the like and delivering appalling presentations” [… that sometimes last up to 50 minutes, as I have recently experienced]

    But I would say that the reason their sessions are so bad is not principally to do with how they use (or don’t use) PowerPoint. The problem is an unacknowledged assumption that CPD should consist of those lower down the hierarchy sitting in rows listening to someone higher up the hierarchy going on and on and on and on. We know that this is not how people learn, so why does it still happen so often at conferences? Over the last couple of years I have been involved (both as a presenter and as a listener) in many PechaKuchas. It’s a real challenge to get one’s message across in 6 minutes and 40 seconds, but in my experience the longer one talks continuously at an audience over and above about 7 minutes the less they will remember.

    Like you, I love PowerPoint’s editable text box. I often joke that my favourite PowerPoint slide is completely blank, but the power of the interactive/editable text box lies in it’s ability to make a shareable record of discussions and activities, and therefore to encourage and facilitate multi-way rather than one-way communication.

    Do we need a campaign to outlaw any situation (at a CPD event or in the classroom) where one-way communication lasts for more than, say, 20 minutes? Perhaps this is where your countdown timers could really be useful – presenters would soon shut up if everyone’s mobile started bleeping after 15 minutes:-)

    Keep up the good work.

    Terry Loane

    • Can’t help jumping in!
      The teaching methodology of breaking content up and engaging participants is a key concept all qualified teachers know of, such as Dave, I believe, but often IT training or CPD is not carried out by people who have been trained the basic concepts of teaching effectively. You’d think that would be an imperative for appointing anyone involved in staff development, but, sadly, they’re usually appointed for their knowledge and expertise, not their ability to transmit it effectively.
      Anyone should be in good hands with Dave, judging by his posts.

      • You are absolutely right! I have worked alongside Dave on several occasions and I can assure you that people are most definitely in good hands with him as a trainer.

        And you are also right, I believe, about the disconnect between effective teaching and the way in which some presentations are ‘delivered’ at conferences etc. But I feel that this is also related to the increasingly hierarchical nature of the education system. Never before in my (long) career as an educator have I felt so strongly that those ‘at the top’ are dictating, with minimal consultation, what those ‘at the front line’ must do. If this is how the people higher up the hierarchy operate then no wonder they want those below them just to sit in rows and listen – and this one-way approach then tends to percolate down the hierarchy.

        Terry Loane

      • Hi Terry – thanks for the endorsement, and likewise your training sessions (and presentations) are excellent.

        I can think of a couple of high profile events that we have both been at where the high profile presenter has delivered an awful (which I find insulting) presentation.

        The question is:

        Do you get worse at presenting the higher up the ranks you move? Or
        Do you move up the ranks because you are so bad at presenting?

  3. Thanks Dave – some great ideas here.

    It’s amazing so many people are drawn to Prezi – a shiny new toy. Because most people use PowerPoint so direly, audiences are craving anything different (and the more different the “better”).

    I really don’t think people could look at many prezis before they’d start saying “OMG, these all look the same now too – and pass the bucket!”

    I work as an instructional designer of elearning in business, and for now our tool of choice is Articulate Presenter. For those who don’t know it, Presenter converts PowerPoint slides to Flash format for playing in a browser. So sometimes I feel a bit sheepish that our main authoring tool is PowerPoint, because (like you say) many people assume “PowerPoint=bad”.

    For teaching people, I agree with you that the tool matters little. By far the bigger success factor is the extent to which you engage learners’ minds – whatever tool you use.

    As for editable text boxes, just last week I saw one used and it blew me away! In that case, the webinar presenter (Ken Molay) used a borderless white text box on top of a photo of a whiteboard that someone was about to write on, which I loved.

    I’ve come up with a few very novel ways to use PowerPoint, especially when you’re answering questions and you don’t want the slide to distract or bore the audience. So, please see my post about new ways to black out your screen (without returning to the same slide afterwards as you do with pressing “B”). There’s also a technique I call “stopping Q&A hypnosis” where you can show a relevant photo-only slide (instead of a slide that just says something like “Any questions?”). By all means leave a comment or suggestion on those if you’d like to.

    Anyway, thanks again, and I’ll be back to your site because of our shared interest in education – be that in academia or in business.

    • Glad you like my post. I have often created editable text boxes that are transparent, I can then position them over any object, and have used speech bubbles, a photo of a phone screen and various others. As you say dead simple, but very effective (especially as people don’t know how you have done it).

      • I really like the idea of a photo of a phone screen behind the text box!

        (Also, meant to say that the “stopping Q&A hypnosis” method lets you show a photo that’s appropriate to whatever question is asked, which similarly makes your audience wonder how on earth you did it! That tip’s available via the link above too.)

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