by Lorraine B. Elder
Sigh. Where to begin? There are so many reasons why using PowerPoint for online courses is a Bad Idea. PowerPoint is just a tool, of course, but it’s so often the wrong tool for the job, especially in teaching online. A hammer is only a tool, but in the wrong hands, well, it makes a mess of things. So it is with PowerPoint.
It’s not that PowerPoint—henceforth referred to as PPT—can’t be used effectively for teaching online. It’s just that most people have developed deplorable PPT habits and now believe that textually dense PPT slides, cheesy animated transitions, and gaudy 3-D graphs are de rigueur for teaching in the classroom and therefore are the perfect choice for online courses, too. To that I say “Nuh-uh. Not. FAIL!” Who else says so? Well, these guys:
Don McMillan, Life After Death by PowerPoint
This video humorously highlights the problems of bad PPTs.
Guy Kawasaki, The 10/20/30 Rule of Powerpoint
Although Kawasaki is targeting entrepreneurs rather than educators, his points still generally apply.
Information design guru Edward Tufte has long decried the evils of PowerPoint, even going so far as to suggest that “stupefying fragments” of reasoning split across multiple PPT slides might have contributed to a space shuttle disaster. The following image is from his commentary on the Columbia explosion. Click the image to see a larger version.
The gist of their criticism is that too many people use PPT poorly even in the situations for which it was designed, namely in-person presentations. The slides tend to serve as a crib sheet for the presenter rather than informing the audience. Now imagine those problems multiplied when a PPT presentation that was awful enough in person gets posted online without the benefit of an instructor to explain the lacunae. Online students assaulted by bad PPT can’t even pelt the instructor with tomatoes.
The Crux of the PPT Problem: Missing Information
A PPT slide, when used to good effect in the situations for which it was designed, contains a single important bit of information. The individual giving the presentation in person is expected to orally set the context, explain the rationale, fill in the details, identify nuances and counterpoints, extrapolate, and draw conclusions from the nugget on the slide. The problem with posting such slides online should be immediately obvious: without the presenter, the slide is next to useless because all of the supporting information is missing.
“Ah ha!” you say. “That must be an argument in favor of putting full paragraphs on slides.” Um, no. If you feel the need to write full paragraphs to explain whatever it is you’re teaching online, fine. But don’t put them on a PPT slide. Put them on a web page. Web pages are pretty good at handling lots of text, as well as audio, video, and other media. PPT isn’t.
Basically, a PPT presentation that was well constructed for an in-person presentation is inadequate for an online course. And a PPT presentation that sucked in person will suck worse online.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at these:
A highlight of Cringely‘s post is this paragraph:
PowerPoint is supposed to play the role of the nerdy kid from the A/V department who keeps all your slides straight and makes you look good. But more often than not, I get the stack without the presenter, and no matter how smart or informed I am, any solo effort to expend that stack into an adequate proxy for a 10,000-word document is simply bound to come up short.
Mitchell describes a presentation given by Chris Atherton, a cognitive psychologist who delivered an 86-slide presentation (ack!) on how to design slides that work with the human brain instead of against it. Although I imagine the presentation was fascinating and informative if you were there to see it live, clicking through the slide deck leaves you feeling that something (clue: it’s a person) is missing. Dr. Atherton’s slides are adequate (if overly abundant) for in-person delivery. But posted online without the benefit of her descriptive explanation and insight, they are not entirely helpful and certainly aren’t substantive enough for a student to learn from and be tested on. BTW, if you’re sick of reading this blog post, see Dr. Atherton’s slides 51–54 to get the quick and dirty summary of the point. Slide 71 is also pithy.
Why Are Instructors So Eager, Nay Insistent, about Putting Their PPTs Online?
Lots of reasons, but mostly these:
I’ll address each.
Instructors have a large library of PPTs they’ve built up over the years
So what? I have a large library of audio cassettes that I recorded years ago from my vinyl record albums and then lovingly hand-labeled with a calligraphy pen. They are stashed in a drawer, representing cherished memories, especially since I sold all the vinyl at a yard sale. But do I actually listen to them? Heck no! Like most people, I’ve upgraded to digital recordings from Amazon, iTunes, and Magnatune. I also listen to compilations on Pandora. The digital versions sound better, are more easily organized and searched, and they don’t degrade the more often I listen.
If your PPTs are more than two years old, you probably need to update them anyway so that the information reflects the current thinking and latest research in your academic discipline. And it wouldn’t hurt to root out those typos and embarrassing spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. While you’re at it, get rid of the illegible tiny type and the annoying SCRIPT IN ALL CAPS. Also ditch the ugly lavender-on-pea-green color scheme and the not-as-cute-as-you-think animated clip art.
Ugly and Hard to Read
My point: musty old PPTs aren’t as valuable as you think. It’s time to move on. And since you’re gonna have to update your material anyway, you might as well do it in a new way.
Instructors already know how to use PPT and don’t want to learn a new tool or process
Instructors seem to forget that they weren’t born knowing how to use PPT. They had to learn to use it, and now it’s time to learn how to use something else. Some instructors think they’re too old, too tired, too busy, or too important to learn new stuff. Others are technophobic and afraid to ask for help, thinking it would signal weakness and vulnerability.
But if you don’t update your skills, you’ll fail to connect with your 21st-century students and will get lousy course evaluations. Online instruction and Web 2.0 tools differ from in-person instruction, and if you don’t learn the differences and adapt your teaching methods accordingly, you’ll hear about it from students. Many new tools focus on ease of use and time savings, so you might discover that new approaches are easier than you imagine.
My point: you owe it to your students (and yourself) to make time to learn new skills, and you don’t have to go it alone. Seek assistance from the faculty development, educational technology, or online learning department on your campus.
Instructors think their PPTs are crystal clear
If your PPT slides are well designed for an in-person presentation, they are too cryptic to post as a standalone online presentation. Terse one- or two-word slides often are understood only by the person who wrote them or by experts in the field. To students, who are novices, more detail is needed to provide a fuller explanation. In person, you provide that detail by speaking. Online, you still need to provide the detail that the slides lack.
If, on the other hand, your PPT slides are an outline of lecture notes or are chock full of explanatory text and complex diagrams, then PPT is the wrong medium for posting that information online. Instead use media that work well online: web pages containing embedded links, images, audio clips, video clips, and the like.
My point: slides that seem the model of clarity to you are likely opaque to your students, and chopping lecture notes up onto multiple online slides won’t help. Instead, use the right tools for the job.
Instructors’ sense of self has become scarily entwined with their PPTs
You are not your PPT. If your PPT were as valuable as you, we wouldn’t need you to teach at all, would we? But you should have an inkling by now that posting a PPT online does not constitute a well-taught course. Online courses need active participation from a genuinely engaged instructor to make them successful.
My point: unlike you, your PPTs don’t have brains, insight, and something to contribute to society. Don’t give up your seat on the bus to your PPTs.
Instructors have gotten bad advice
Swept up in swine flu fever, some universities are recommending that faculty post their PPTs online, but they fail to warn instructors of the pitfalls of that approach, and they don’t all offer guidance about good ways to make material available online. Just as swine flu propagates through close contact and bad hygiene, bad PPT mythology spreads infectiously. Instructors see other instructors using PPT poorly and assume that’s the way it should be done. Don’t fall for it.
Many universities have departments whose job it is to be expert in instructional design, information design, and educational technology. Avail yourself of their services. Get some guidance and training in how to teach well online, how to design your materials for online delivery, and how to convert your PPTs into something more useful for online courses.
My point: just because other instructors use PPT badly doesn’t mean you should too.
Instructors don’t realize that not all students have equal access to PPT
Students don’t all have Microsoft Office, or they might have an older version that isn’t entirely compatible with the one instructors use to create presentations. PPTs created on Windows-based PCs don’t always display well on Macs, and tools available for Mac users aren’t on par with those for Windows users. These issues don’t matter when you project slides from your computer in an in-person classroom, but they matter a LOT when you post your PPT file online and then make the fallible assumption that students will be able to open it on whatever computer they use and see exactly the same thing you see on your computer.
Even more importantly, students who have disabilities and use assistive technologies such as screen readers might not be able to get at the information in your PPT at all unless you’ve carefully made it accessible. If your school receives federal funding, you need to be aware of Section 508 requirements to make information accessible. By posting inaccessible PPTs online and making them a required part of your course, you might invite a lawsuit.
My point: use tools that make your information available to all of your students, regardless of their preferred computing platform and need for assistive technology.
The comments here generally apply to asynchronous online courses, those in which students can work on the course at whatever time is convenient for them, and there’s no expectation that everyone enrolled in the course will be online at the same time.
If you teach a synchronous online course, especially one that uses some kind of web conferencing features, then—assuming you’re going to be online in the course at the same time as your students and will be communicating actively with them—of course you can use your well-designed, nonboring PPTs, as long as you address the accessibility issues and fill in the gaps by using either audio or textual chat.
If Not PPT, Then What?
Ah, that’s a subject for more blog posts to come.
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Filed under: Accessibility, Educational Technology, Instructional Media | Tagged: Atherton, Cringely, Dilbert, Kawasaki, McMillan, Mitchell, PowerPoint, Tufte | 15 Comments »