Don’t blame Powerpoint – it’s done nothing wrong…

With the students returning back to university tomorrow, things will be getting back to normal. Many have been working over the Easter break or been on placement, but it is only when the students actually return that the university seems ‘alive’ again. Tomorrow I will start teaching again, mainly mathematics, and I spent some time last week prepping the sessions and putting the resources on the VLE. One resource which is uploaded is the student version of the presentation for the session in the form of PowerPoint slides. I recently read an article about presenting without the use of PowerPoint and I thought I would waffle this week why I think it is important to have something like Powerpoint at our disposal as practitioners…

I have started to consider myself an expert on Powerpoint and its use in presenting and supporting learning. If you follow me on Twitter or subscribe to this site, then you will be aware that I recently had my first ever article published in an peer reviewed educational journal – yeah go me! What was the topic of this article? Well it was titled Positive Powerpoint – developing good practice through practitioner research – I’m third up from the bottom! Coming from the primary school sector, I really wanted to do my first research on developing good practice through the use of the interactive whiteboard, but there was little or no literature on this at the time, so second on the list was PowerPoint. When I am module directing, I always provide a student version of the slides before the session with the full version being available after all five groups have been taught. The student version is the presentation without the ‘answers’ to activities or any information which I want the students to initially discuss. This version of the slide show is often used within sessions by the learners. But would it be possible to teach and learn without the use of Powerpoint? It has been getting a lot of ‘bad press’ lately, so I thought I would come to its support, as well as making some comments about how to use it more effectively.

  • A Bad workperson blames the tools – In a session before Easter we were discussing the use of technology within a session. One point that became apparent, which I totally support, was that technology can not make a bad teacher better. Technology should never been seen as a ‘fix’ for poor teaching. In order to use technology effectively, practitioners need to understand and implement the pedagogy which is associated with the use of technology. I think that this philosophy needs to be applied to the use of Powerpoint as well. Powerpoint is essentially a tool. Knowing how it can be used to support teaching and learning is essential and how a practitioner uses it is not the fault of the program itself, but it does demonstrates the lack of understanding of how to use the program effectively to support teaching and learning. When used effectively, it can support learning by promoting discussion, identifying connections and even motivating students to learn asynchronously. When I am promoting my radio station and blog, I often get accused of self promotion by the students and I would not want you to think at this point that I am directing you all to read my research on the use of Powerpoint. This is not my intention at all – what I would recommend is that everyone remembers the theories which we know so well and implement them through the use of Powerpoint, rather than thinking that Powerpoint is actually a learning theory in itself – something which it is definitely not.

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  • Reduce content – There is a definite difference between a session/lesson plan and a slide show. Within mathematics we create tutor plans so that all the members of the team have a clear understanding of the learning, desirable outcomes and activities within the session. Accompanying this session plan is the presentation. The slides usually contain, key information, references and quotes, information about activities and key questions. One complaint from learners always appears to be tutors reading from the slides. With reduced content on the slide, this becomes an impossibility. I also recommend at the start of the module, that students take notes on what I am saying rather than what is on the slide. I have observed learners frequently having the slide show open on a device or in paper form, adding notes to this. In this way, the slide show becomes the starting point for the learning rather than the list of what the tutor needs to say. We have all sat in those meetings when there are twelve points on the agenda and we tick them off one by one once they are completed, knowing we are getting closer and closer to the end. We don’t want to promote or encourage the same feeling within sessions. Avoiding a slide filled with bullet points is therefore encouraged or, if you feel it is necessary, and I have done this, present it but expand on certain points, ask questions about opinions and allow discussion to take place. Just remember, key points and not the complete session content – the slide should always be a reminder of what was in the session, not the actual complete session.

  • Follow the learner(s) not the slides – Within primary schools, the interests and needs of the children play a very important role in the creation and delivering of lessons. Currently within my teaching groups there are 24-37 students, all keen to learn about the pedagogy of mathematics. I am sometimes envious of courses/programmes which have 5-10 learners in a group – why? because within these smaller groups it is possible to tailor the content more to what the learners require. When creating the presentation for the session, we, as in the tutors, create it by following our own thought pattern through the topic/content. This is well informed and relates to an expanded understanding of the topic. However, sometimes it is possible for learners to begin to see different connections and/or links within the topic or even need information/understanding of a concept, which you put later in the slides, earlier. When researching the use of Powerpoint, I read about the possibility of linking all the slides together via hyperlinks in order to allow for the slides to be ‘clicked between’. Although the principle is a good idea, I find that it is just as easy to click using the clicker. The important point here, is that we should not be slaves to the presentation and order of the slides. If we do, then we are endanger of just becoming some automatic delivery system which can be easily replaced or captured (as in lecture captured, not captured as in kidnapping!). The title of this section summarises my point here perfectly – follow the learners not the slides…point made.
  • I’m sure that there are many people reading this who might have just felt that I have spoken about points which everyone takes for granted. I also might have annoyed or ‘angered’ some people – “how dare he tell me how to present!”. What I am trying to achieve with this waffle, is to highlight some of the points which I have uncovered by researching and applying these to my practice. What I do hope I have achieved through writing this week’s waffle, if you are still reading/listening to it now, is to encourage us all to engage with our own practice and examine how we use Powerpoint as a tool, rather than how we use Powerpoint as the teacher. People often say that computers ‘hate them’. Although people sense this, computers do not have the ability (currently) to form any sort of emotional attachments or interactions with their users. In the same way, I would suggest that you should not ‘hate’ Powerpoint since it is not actually doing anything. It is essentially a tool and rather than hating the presentation software, maybe the feeling of dislike should be directed more towards the user – too controversial this blog?… well maybe.

    I look forward to hearing your comments and ideas, please add them in the comments below or send them to me via Twitter(@iwilsonysj), Facebook, Google+ or email.

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