Getting to the point

In this blog I have asked every so often whether slide presentations are good or bad in higher education. When I last wrote on the subject I think I concluded that they had become a distraction from teaching rather than being a pedagogical tool to support it, in part because they were often not well thought out. It’s a topic that regularly crops up in higher education journals and websites, most recently here.

I was reminded of the questionable merits of such presentations at an event I attended recently, where one of the speakers had seriously over-achieved in the design and formatting of his slide show, but at the expense of intelligent comment. One of his slides just had the one word ‘Yes’,  but with the word set in the middle of an explosion of clip art and psychedelic colours.

Having given up on Powerpoint and similar tools a while ago, I returned to it recently and tried something different – a parade of slides automatically progressing in the background while I spoke, with each slide containing a famous work of art; with no explanation, so inviting my listeners either to work out what the connection was, or to get relief from my talk with something aesthetically pleasing. I was quite happy with the engagement it appeared to prompt – though I consider it only appropriate as a one-off, or it would become a cliché.

I suppose that what I now think is that Powerpoint, like any tool, has its uses as long as one knows what these might be. I’ll try to keep an open mind.

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6 Comments on “Getting to the point”

  1. Dr.MIR Says:

    Very Very Nice and Important Q. : Do or should the Powerpoint Lecture successfully deliver it to our students, or not ? If we do/don’t give it to every students- then what are the merits and demerits can arise ?

  2. Vincent Says:

    The problem isn’t the display but the idiots driving it not having the design wherewithal to make it presentable or even relevant. Or as I found in the last five meetings/lectures, in focus.

  3. cormac Says:

    History of Science conferences are interesting in this regard. Because the presentations are by researchers from the humanities and from the sciences, one typically encounters a wide variety of presentation styles, from those who literally stand at the lectern and read from a written script to those who present a smorgasbord of images with the use of packages like power-point.
    A lot depends on the presenter, but I must say that I usually find the power-point presentations easier to follow, especially if the material gets technical. I suspect a few outrageous examples of misuse gave power-point a bad name early on. After all, how difficult can it be to present (and absorb) a slide with 2-3 bullet points and an appropriate pic on the RHS?
    By contrast, talks without images or structure make the audience work hard. That can be a good thing sometimes, but I notice that when I find a talk a bit waffly and short on data, it’s usually the person reading from a script.
    Like many researchers, I hit on a style early on and have changed very little since. Below is an example, must try something else sometime

    • James Fryar Says:

      One you might appreciate, Cormac … reading the discussion on presentations, I was reminded of a visiting lecturer who gave a talk to our undergraduate class. The subject was scales and he had 42 slides (the meaning of life, the universe and everything, obviously), each representing an order of magnitude decrease in scale from galaxies to sub-atomic particles.

      As you might imagine, the vast majority of the hour long talk involved us staring at a completely black screen while he discussed each one.

      Sometimes the approach just doesn’t work, regardless of whether it is scripted, non-scripted, powerpoint or overhead slides!

  4. cormac Says:

    But why a completely black screen? He could have left up the image of the atom while discussing that scale, then a pic of the atomic nucleus while discussing the next, etc…should have been a very easy presentation to give!

    • James Fryar Says:

      Exactly, so it was quarks…black screens…nucleus…black screens…electrons…black screens…virus…bacteria…blood cells … humans … trees … mountains … earth … black screens … solar system … black screens … galaxy … black screens …

      At the end of the talk, with everyone yawning, stretching, and rubbing their eyes, he asked if there were any questions. I put up my hand, being the cheeky sod I was, and declared ‘so, I guess if there’s one thing we can take away from this talk it’s that the universe is pretty empty and boring’. Our internal lecturer who had turned over the class to the visitor interrupted before he could respond, thanked him, quietly asked me to remain behind to discuss my attitude, and when everyone had left, reached into his pocket, handed me a fiver, laughed his head off and told me to use it to get myself a pint on him.

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