Making Powerful Points

PowerPoint cops a lot of flak sometimes. People often use it in a way that is overdone, hackneyed, clichéd, uncreative and just plain boring. You’ll often hear the phrase “death by PowerPoint”, as presenters try to wear you down with slide after boring slide of bulleted points and flying text effects. Although PowerPoint is still seen by some teachers as a useful tool for education, it’s relevance in a Web 2.0 world seems to be on the decline and I’ve heard a number of disparaging comments about poor old PowerPoint recently suggesting that it’s time in the educational sun is well and truly over.

I can understand why any teacher who has been teaching with with technology for a while might be sick of PowerPoint. They’ve no doubt sat through dozens, even hundreds, of PowerPoint presentations over the years. Many of these have been peppered with flying text that swoops across the page letter by letter while making swooshing sounds, or seeing slides that require 30 clicks to build a series of stretched, distorted and probably irrelevant images that drop, bounce, swish and zoom their way onto the slide. And despite the fact that students may have learnt to use every animation, transition and graphic effect available in the software, the amount of “learning” in the traditional content-based sense is often very minimal.

And yet for teachers who are only just now starting to introduce PowerPoint into their classroom, or who have never gotten their students to present using PowerPoint at all (and surprisingly, there are still quite a few of these teachers) there remains a certain funky factor about PowerPoint that makes it easy for the whizz-bangery of the effects to overshadow the fact that very little actual communicating or learning is taking place.

But there’s no denying that the ability to present – to be able to stand in front of an audience and explain, persuade and influence them to your point of view – is an extremely valuable skill. And whether you like them or not, the use of persuasive visual tools like PowerPoint or Keynote is a highly valued ability in many organisations. If you can stand up in front of people and give a decent presentation it will take you a long way.

The problem of course is that when most kids do presentations they are big on the PowerPoint part, but not too good on the speaking part. In too many cases they stand there with their backs to the audience and just read the text on their slides, while the animation effects are completely over the top. They too-often mumble their way through the slides and put the audience to sleep. They produce boring presentations… and it’s a shame, because PowerPoint/Keynote is actually an amazingly powerful tool if you use it right. It’s just that most kids don’t get taught to use it right.

I particularly like the work of Cliff Atkinson and his Beyond Bullet Points approach. I tried a modified version of it with some kids earlier this year with stunningly effective results. The idea is simple… less is more… get the text off the slides. If there is no text (or at least minimal text) on the slides then kids can’t just read the slides to the audience. It’s a simple approach but it works really well. Atkinson actually has a whole methodology to what he does, starting with a outlined list in Word and then importing that into PowerPoint. This puts the main idea points as a heading at the top of each slide. You add the bullet pointy stuff that you would have normally added to the slide into the notes section instead (so the audience never sees it, but it gives the presenter a written list of what they plan to cover.) Then you find an image or photograph that expresses the idea you’re trying to get across, add it to the slide, and that’s basically it. I also don’t allow the kids to have cue cards… so no notes, no fumbling, no reading.

When the kids present their slideshow they cannot read the slides to us, as there is really nothing up on the screen to read. They don’t have cue cards in their hands so they don’t look down all the time and mumble. The imagery engages the audience surprisingly more than the text ever would, and the presenter has to talk to the audience because they find themselves needing to actually explain the point they are making. The presentation becomes much more conversational, and not just a rote speech with distracting animations. I was amazed at how well this works.

I have since been experimenting with this “no text” idea. I’ve done it several times now, with several groups, in several ways and I have been consistently seeing the best PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen in 15 years of teaching with technology. I am absolutely amazed at the results.

For example, I asked a grade 9/10 class last week to find a current Internet news article (within 14 days) on some aspect of technology that interests them, and then to come up with a short summary of the article and five questions that the article raises. They then turned this into an 8 slide PowerPoint file (title, article summary, five question slides, and a citation slide at the end). They had to do a quick 3-4 minute presentation to the class on their article. They could not use notes or cue cards. They had to present their answers to the five questions, but of course their answers were not written on the slides so they had to know what they were talking about. This group did some of the best presentations I’ve ever seen. They were confident, they spoke well, made eye contact, interacted with the group and covered their chosen topics with surprising clarity and depth of understanding. I think they surprised themselves too, and many gave a confident, polished presentation that went for more than the minimum 3-4 minutes..

Then I did something similar with a grade 11 class, only even more simplified… pick a topic that interests you and present it to the class. No notes. No text on your slides. Again, they were some of the best presentations I’ve seen in ages, and myself and the rest of the class were totally engaged with the presenters as they came up one by one to tell their stories. Surprisingly, before they gave their talks most of them insisted they were not at all keen to speak in front of their peers. But after it was done, most said that not only was not as scary as they thought it would be, but many actually quite enjoyed it.

Of course, through all of this I was hammering these kids about the idea that YOU are the magic, not the slideshow. I kept telling them that the slideshow was secondary, and they it was them that the audience was engaging with. I think that combined with my nagging about it, and these techniques of less text/no notes/lots of images, they actually learnt quite a lot about presenting with visual tools. I also spent a lot of time developing their skills in building animations and thinking about the ways that animation can be used to visually convey an idea in stages. Oh, and getting the text off the slides.

I think that PowerPoint deserves a lot of the criticism gets, because too many teachers/kids/presenters use it primarily as eye candy and visual effects instead of a powerful tool for assisting a presenter persuade and inform their audience. If you’re feeling jaded by PowerPoint, give this approach a go. Keep it simple and take the focus off the slides. I’m convinced it makes a massive difference to the way PowerPoint gets used, and once you get the idea that it’s not really about conveying subject content, but more about learning communication skills in front of an audience, then I think humble old PowerPoint can have some really positive learning benefits.  Give it a try and let me know how it works for you…

Data Projectors for Dummies

Back in the day, when data projectors were still somewhat of a novelty, it was probably acceptable to be a little unsure of how to set one up.  But these days we are finding them in great demand and although our school techs are still willing to come set it up for teachers if they ask, I think there ought to come a point when we learn to do these things for ourselves.  I mean, you don’t ask a tech to come set up an regular overheap projector for you, or a TV and DVD player, so why would a data projector be any different?  As our classrooms start to depend more and more on a range of “devices”, surely we need to know how to use them for ourselves?

Anyway, In an attempt to ease the way (and more-or-less gently drop the hint that it’s about time some of you figured out how to do this stuff for yourselves) I made this little video that explains the step-by-step process of using a data projector the right way. 

After adding it to our intranet, I had a copy just sitting on my hard drive so I figured I may as well share it with the rest of the world on my blog (Not that the rest of the world reads my blog mind you!)  It might be of some use to someone.

Your comments are welcome.  And yes, I know I needed a haircut.

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Where was that option?

A teaching colleague in Australia asked a question on a mailing list the other day about ways to incorporate ICT into the teaching of literacy and numeracy for her students. She received a rather sensible suggestion (from a teacher/librarian) that her own school’s teacher/librarian should be able to help her with such a request. That seems sensible… after all aren’t librarians supposed to be trained in the use of literacy resources? Don’t librarians deal with information-based resources on a daily basis? And don’t most of our information-based resources come in a digital format these days? Logically then, wouldn’t a librarian be the best person to speak to if one wanted to some assistance with the use of ICT for assisting literacy?

So the suggestion was made. “Ask your friendly teacher/librarian. They should be able to help you.”

The answer came back… “Our teacher/librarian is not really into ICT”

“Not really into ICT?” Sorry, but when did the luxury of being “into ICT” become one of the choices? As a teacher, or a librarian, but especially as a teacher/librarian, you can’t just be “not really into ICT”. You’re free to choose many things… you can be “not really into heavy metal music”, or be “not really into black jelly beans” or be “not really into Dan Brown novels”, but to be “not really into ICT” is not an option you have. It makes me a bit cross, because it seems there are still librarians, and teachers too for that matter, who pick and choose what aspects of their job they decide they will “be into”.

I’m not really into writing programs and registers, but I have to. It’s part of the job of being a teacher. I’m not really into standing in the playground in the middle of winter, but supervision duty is part of the job of being a teacher. I didn’t used to know a huge amount about developing literacy skills, differentiating the curriculum, or dealing with peanut allergies, but I had to learn these things because it’s a part of the job of being a teacher. Not “being into” these things was not an option for me. It was “deal with it, or find another career”.

I’m not sure why being “into ICT” is still seen as optional for so many teachers. This is 2006. The use of digital technologies is so deeply embedded into our students’ cultures, lives, thinking and day-to-day existence, that for a teacher or a T/L to simply be “not into ICT” amounts to what I can only describe as professional negligence.

There I said it.

Time to retire the Stagecoach

One of my very favourite writers and thinkers about education is Seymour Papert. I really like his views on the ways in which schools need to change.

It cannot be incremental, it as to be revolutionary.

I get very frustrated when I hear teachers talk about the way technology can be used to “improve” teaching. It’s not about “improving” teaching. The fact is that the model of schooling which we blindly accept as a given is rooted in 19th century methodology, but the world has changed so dramatically that it’s not a matter of introducing a few computers and doing the same old things. We have to start doing new things, not old things in new ways.

One of Papert’s articles likens education to an old fashioned stagecoach, and talks about the ways in which a stagecoach could be improved. Although stagecoaches were an effective means of transportation in their day, as a means of transport they can certainly be improved upon. He muses on the idea of strapping a jet engine to a stagecoach as a way to improve its performance – in much the same way we tinker with adding technology into our outdated curriculum and thinking they will somehow magically improve things. Like the jet engine on the stagecoach, we need to do more than just add on some new technology to an old system. We need to design a whole new jet airplane, not add a jet engine to a stagecoach.

You can read the entire article here.

I particularly resonated with the notion that the early airplanes were still not as effective in their day as an old fashioned stagecoach. Some people say the same thing about education today – “we added computers to our classrooms but nothing really changed”.

But as Papert observes…

“… You have to stop trying to improve the functioning of the old system. Instead lay down the seeds for something new. Maybe this will result in decreased performance according to the traditional measures. Remember that the first airplanes were not so good as stagecoaches as means for getting around. But they were destined to revolutionize transportation…”

It’s about time for that revolution.

It's actually working…

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Wow, I’m amazed.  This podcasting idea is actually working.  The Virtual Staffroom, my little project to try and share the great  technology integration work done by some of Australia’s leading teachers is actually working.

I got an email today from a guy at the Australian Catholic University in Ballarat, Victoria, asking if he could burn 80 copies of the podcast to CD and give it to a group of pre-service teachers as they train to go out into the classrooms of Australia.  I was blown away.  This is within 48 hours of going live with Anne Baird’s Episode 1.

And then I just checked the iTunes Store, who are now including the show in their podcast directory.  It’s currently ranked number 1 podcast in the Educational Technology section! In fact its also ranked number 10 in the Education section overall.

And this is just the beginning!  Bring it on… 🙂

The Staffroom is Live

Yay! Another little project I’ve been working on lately is The Virtual Staffroom, a podcasting project where I’m trying to create a virtual conversation space for leading teachers to talk about the ways they integrate technology into their classrooms.

Episode one launches today with a wonderful conversation with Anne Baird from Wedderburn school in Victoria, Australia.

Head on over to www.virtualstaffroom.net and check it out. It should also be available very soon through the Podcast directory of the iTunes Store.