19 September 2014

Is PowerPoint Evil?

In exploring the role visual literacy plays in education, the ubiquitous PowerPoint must be examined. According to Ian Parker (2001) PowerPoint "can be found on two hundred and fifty million computers around the world", and "Microsoft estimates, at least thirty million PowerPoint presentations are made every day". We cannot get away from it as teachers, learners, or managers all are far too aware - and Edward Tuft (2003) goes so far as to suggest that it is in fact 'evil', that "Power corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely".

I would like to think that a software programme, originally developed to allow "the content-originator to control the presentation" (Bob Gaskins, 1984) cannot be inherently evil. I would posit that it is the users who are 'evil' (if anyone has to be in this story) in regards the fact that visual literacy is not being taught as a prerequisite skill in giving presentations. It is wrong to assume that people can do the jobs that designers do - simply inventing PowerPoint to avoid the middle-men designers, doesn't then also provide the skills to the lay-person to create these presentations effectively, it only gives them the tool.

The problem lies with visual literacy not with PowerPoint. When it comes to teaching presentation skills, educators must not only address the content and style of the language, but also the 'presentation' of the non-language features, which are equally important in telling a 'story', be it pitching an idea or providing information. Less is definitely more - we see our learners animating every word, letter even, using every possible transition, colour and font available, as demonstrated in the "The Worst Preso Ever" created by Mitch Champagne (2014). He says that he co-creates one of these at the start of every year to help his class get all their bad habits, errors of understanding etc., out of the way at the beginning. He states that "it definitely helps them. As we "make mistakes" together, they all learn from them". We need to be fully aware that the presentation is there for a purpose, which is as a visual aid to our speech and that "audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure" (Tuft, 2003). 

There are many positives to the use of PowerPoint (or the many different slide show tools available) particularly for learners as it has to be thought out and created. Rather than meaning there is any loss of spontaneity, as suggested by Professor Cliford Nass of Stanford Univeristy (Parker, 2001) it actually means there has been a process, and that the presenter is "not thinking about his or her material for the very first time" (Parker, 2001). This preparation also requires learners (presenters) to put thought into the order of their points, and according to Steven Pinker, author of "The Language Instinct" and a psychology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "makes the logical structure of an argument more transparent",  which helps student grasp argumentative discourse. Presentations also help visual learners absorb information - and of course, images can be very powerful if done in an effective manner (where the 'power' comes from after all).

The problems come not only aesthetically, but when they cease to be the visual aid they were intended to be in terms of supporting the actual words, and they instead, become the actual focus. As Tuft (2003) states, "presentations largely stand or fall on the quality, relevance, and integrity of the content". Educating learners in basics about design skills, as we might when it comes to web or blog design, is crucial at an early age. Providing plenty of positive examples is also key, as educators must also realise these essential points about effective presentation.

Champagne, M. [MitchChampagne]. (2014, September 17). My students love it! We make our own every year, right about now, to get all our silly & tacky mistakes out of the way! [Tweet]. Retrieved September 18, 2014 from https://twitter.com/MitchChampagne.

Champagne, M. (n.d.). The Worst Preso Ever. Retrieved September 17, 2014, from https://docs.google.com/a/mrshollyenglish.com/presentation/d/1MaC6BGDHrUSK6KNklvK24aBVnekYdiUzQVUjknUOaeo/edit#slide=id.p

Parker, I. (2001, May 28). Absolute Powerpoint. Retrieved September 18, 2014, from http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/group/powerpt.html.

Tuft, E. (2003, September 1). PowerPoint Is Evil. Retrieved September 19, 2014, from http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html