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A Big Question on PowerPoint May 31, 2007

Posted by cjescribano in Learning, PowerPoint.
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This month’s Learning Circuit’s Big Question was so big, I thought about it pretty much all month. I talked about it with colleagues. I researched it. I drafted several responses. And here it is, almost the last day of the month, and I’m finally feeling clear enough to post a response. Just squeaking in under the wire, before the next Big Question comes along.

The Death of PowerPoint?
The Big Question referenced an article that said that new research “pronounced the death of the PowerPoint presentation.” So, my colleagues and I looked up this research to see what was so wrong about using PowerPoint. The conclusion we came to was that the culprit was not PowerPoint but poor design–people not taking the time to use the tool for what it does best.

Uses for PowerPoint
The fact is, PowerPoint is a useful tool and that’s because of its visual quality, not because of its bullet points (although I must admit that PowerPoint’s templates encourage the use of bullets–out of 27 Slide Layouts, 15 have bullets).

PowerPoint is useful for illustrating and reinforcing key points. It can guide learners through a class or presentation, showing progress and hinting at what’s to come. It can provide instructions for activities. It even provides a quick way to create e-learning.

I like to use PowerPoint to show people what I’m thinking or designing. For example, I use it to mock up e-learning screens, and I implement the linking functionality to mimic how the course might work eventually. This helps both me and my client think through every aspect of the design. It allows my clients to provide very specific feedback based on a concrete visual instead of something imagined from text.

If you set a goal for yourself not to use any bullets in your PowerPoint presentations, you will be forced to approach your subject visually. The result is a deeper understanding of your topic–both for yourself and your learners.

What the Research Tells Me about Using PowerPoint
My review of Dr. Sweller’s research did not lead me to question the value of PowerPoint, but to question how I could use it more effectively. Here’s what Dr. Sweller’s research tells me about designing in PowerPoint:

  • The Split Attention Effect says that a graphic next to a block of text requires learners to use a lot of working memory to mentally integrate the two.
    Translation to PowerPoint: Don’t use those text left, graphic right kinds of templates. Instead, find a way to integrate the text and image into a single meaningful visual.
  • The Redundancy Effect says that redundant sources of information (e.g., text and an image that both say the same thing) put a strain on working memory.
    Translation to PowerPoint: Declutter your slides by removing redundancies. In general, if you have to decide between text and a visual, go with the visual, and let your verbal presentation or the notes provide any additional explanation necessary.
  • The Modality Effect says that some parts of working memory are only for auditory information and some are only for visual information. So, you can enhance learning by providing some information visually and some auditorially.
    Translation to PowerPoint: Use a visual with supporting audio (like Breeze allows) to drive home your points. Do not repeat the audio as text on the screen.
  • Elements of information that interact with each other to convey an idea–for example to show relationships–are best presented pictorially because the picture conveys the relationships.
    Translation to PowerPoint: Use visuals to convey relationships

It’s the Design, Not the Tool
We all need to slow down enough to think through a design thoroughly and to use tools to their best advantage. Once in Presentations magazine, I saw a beautiful image that had been drawn in PowerPoint using basic shapes. It made me realize all the untapped potential that’s in PowerPoint.

It’s up to us to sharpen our skills to design more effective instruction or presentations, no matter what tool we use.