Death By PowerPoint

The most ubiquitous tool in modern education is PowerPoint. Education is not alone in the widespread adoption of this tool. When I worked in research with the U.S. military, I was surprised at how much PowerPoint was used to capture and disseminate knowledge, a fact lamented in a New York Times article, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint”.

In a recent article in Faculty Focus, a newsletter by Magna Publications, “Improve Your PowerPoint Design with One Simple Rule”, John Orlando states, “…. 90% of the problem can be solved by following one simple rule: No bullet points.” Visuals that illustrate ideas or concepts are fine but text that echoes what you say or reminds you to say it is not. At worst, PowerPoint becomes just an auto cue for what a lecturer wants to say, in which case it would be better replaced by a well-scripted online recording of a lecture. 

An argument for live lectures is that they can be inspirational if delivered by a skilled orator. This has prompted humorists to speculate how PowerPoint might have influenced the great speeches of history: I have a dream , Gettysburg address

In working with students doing presentations over the years I have found many of them use PowerPoint as a crutch in what for them is often a nerve-racking experience. Left to their own devices, they may have 30 or more slides for a 15- minute talk. They worry about finishing too early but more often run out of time. They often would rather look at the screen and read the slides than talk directly to the audience. I deliberately restrict their use of PowerPoint to no more than five slides for a 15-minute talk. A slide may have only pictures and diagrams, no bullets. 

I have tried to change how I use PowerPoint (more recently Apple Keynote) over the years. Understanding how easy it is to use it poorly, I restrict my use of it and focus more on teaching more interactively. For example, I teach design to technology students. There are principles of design, e.g. consistency. In the past I would have listed the principles as bullet points on a slide and discussed each one. I now use web links with examples of good and bad web page design and ask the students to discuss them together in groups. They must establish criteria to rate them and provide reasons for why one is better than the other. This task engages the students in analysis, discussion and collaboration. 

I find the students are fully engaged in the problem and in the process they discover most of the design principles for themselves. It takes a little more time to teach this way but the students learn more and are fully involved in the class. Unlike with a traditional PowerPoint presentation, they cannot pretend to be listening while actually being more attentive to what is happening on their phone screens.

Finally, I will leave you with comedian Don McMillan presenting a humorous expose of issues with PowerPoint use in his “Life After Death by PowerPoint”: