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EdTech Update




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BFTP: Is Powerpoint evil?

Johnson’s Observation on Multimedia Content:
You can put all the pretty clothes on your dog you want, but he’s still a dog.

Yesterday’s e-mail brought the following question from ISTE’s editor, Jennifer Roland: "Leading & Learning with Technology is looking for a few good editorialists to argue both sides of this question: Is PowerPoint Crippling Our Students? Some say that PowerPoint is an important tool in any classroom because of its real-world applications. Others say it is an unnecessary distraction that leads students to go for glitz over substance. Where do you stand on the issue?"

Good question. Since it is unlikely I’d be considered a “good editorialist” in anyone’s book, I’ll just pipe up here*. The main things I’d think about when looking at working with kids and PowerPoint:

1. PowerPoint doesn’t bore people: people bore people. As an old former speech teacher, I have a bias that PowerPoint falls under the category of visual aid – with aid being the operative word. If we are teaching kids how to use this software, it needs to be within the context of good speaking skills, not in a computer class. But then all technology skills should be taught within the content areas. Yeah, the old stuff like eye contact, expression, and gestures are still important. So is having something worthwhile to say.

2. The sins of the overhead user shall be visited upon the computer user. Tufte, in his The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Graphics Press, 2003) makes a compelling case that complex information is not best shared using this software. He argues persuasively that PowerPoint makes it far too easy to reduce complex topics to simple bullet points. He argues that some graphic information is too detailed for the low-rez graphics of the computer screen. I’m just not sure choosing the wrong tool for the wrong job is the tool’s fault.

3. There are more visual learners than meet the eye. Cautions aside, good visuals are exceptionally powerful, and our kids need practice in harnessing this power. Too bad more teachers themselves don’t have at least a fundamental knowledge of good design principles, knowledge of typography, and photocomposition.

A presentation accompanied by a well-designed slide show that helps inform or persuade the audience can be one the products of a good information literacy unit. I get the feeling a goodly number of our kids will be one giving these things as part of their jobs, They may as well do it skillfully.

Keep in mind Johnson’s Rule of Technology Neutrality: Technology is neither good nor bad. The same hammer can both break windows and build cathedrals.

Your thoughts on pitfalls or promises of PowerPoint? What to do you do to make sure the tool is being used well? 

*I’ve weighed in on this topic once already in a 1999 column Slideshow Safety. As with a frightening number of things I’ve written long ago, I’ve found that my thoughts haven’t changed much – which says more about my obstinacy than my prescience. You’ve been warned.

The "Presentation Zen" school of slide design has become fashionable, eliminating nearly all words on slides in favor of only visuals. Since too many of the visuals tend to be generic, I often wonder - why bother with slides at all?

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Reader Comments (12)

Great post. The link you refer to doesn't work, though. The page /dougwri/safety.html could not be located on this website. I wanted to read it, darn it.

September 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFran Lo

Thanks, Fran. Link fixed.


September 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

The "glitz over glitter" reference is the main issue I have with students using Powerpoint. If they are given five hours to prepare a presentation, they will spend 4 1/2 hours formatting the slides and an half hour actually creating the content.

I have tried without success to teach them to prepare the content on blank slides and then go back later to "pretty it up."

I rarely use it myself anymore and I know I am extremely tired of seeing it at conferences and workshops.

September 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElaine Willis

Back in the old days of the late 1970s, I first encountered the concept of a decent slide show when I worked as a seasonal for the National Park Service. "You don't put up a slide and then say, and here's a slide that shows a prairie dog." Instead, we were trained to choose slides that complimented what we were talking about. I still see this simple error in many presentations. Last year, I tried Prezi because it allowed me to embed YouTube videos in a more friendly way than Powerpoint. Powerpoint now seems as antiquated as a carousel slide projector. Prezi reveals that it *is* Powerpoint (as well as the presenter) which is boring. The presentations students made with Prezi ranged from boring (because he used it just as though it was Powerpoint) to spectacularly amazing.

September 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJude not HeyJude

About Prezi--it meets the need to create the content first. If you create as you go, you can easily get lost. Creating the glitzy part of the Prezi is what makes it fun to use and fun to watch.

September 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJude not HeyJude

I've seen the "PowerPoint daze" when students eyes fog over while being bombarded with slide after slide of text - which is, of course, then read by the teacher. Perhaps part of my job as the teacher librarian should be staff development which includes presentation skills.

But, the main point I'd like to highlight here is this: "If we are teaching kids how to use this software, it needs to be within the context of good speaking skills, not in a computer class. But then all technology skills should be taught within the content areas." I teach "skills" classes in the computer lab to 5th and 6th graders in isolation from the content area classrooms. I've argued that this is not in the students' best interests nor is it best practice. However, my class is needed to provide release time for families of teacher to meet and collaborate which is exactly what I should be doing with them.


September 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob F.

Hi Elaine,

I wonder if part of the fascination of PPT with kids is that they allowed the freedom to be creative with the packaging that they are not with the content. If we asked for a creative message, not just creative slides, would the kids pay more attention to content?


Hi Jude,

Unfortunately I've seen some of the same excesses in Prezi than I have in PPT - and Prezi makes me sea sick.

I will say that Prezi seems to encourage a less linear, more web-like, structure to materials.

I don't know about Powerpoint being antiquated. It's a format. I don't see novels, television, spreadsheets or other communication formats ever being replaced, only complemented, by newer formats.


Hi Bob,

Our library media specialists also teach some skills in isolation. Oh, to live and work in a perfect world!


September 20, 2010 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug,
We use power point with grades 4-5 and I start by discussing what is more important the background or the imformation that they are providing? We also discuss the need for having the same background for each slide --I give them the analogy of a book with every page being a different color --and then would you be looking forward to the text or would be trying to figure out what color the next page would be. I also show them a few power points of students past as an example. Some of the students have used Max Show in grades 2-3 so are a little more comfortable with it. We give them a rubric and also a planning sheet with a blank slide so that they can plan out what they are going to put on their slide. We do still have those that go overboard. Power point is normally used by teachers for a novel or science/social studies --e.g. Life cycle of a Plant, Minerals, Tales of a Fourth grade nothing etc. I have used Photostory as an alternative sometimes with students.

September 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRati Singhal

WRT, your last point

The "Presentation Zen" school of slide design has become fashionable, eliminating nearly all words on slides in favor of only visuals. Since too many of the visuals tend to be generic, I often wonder - why bother with slides at all?

I use visuals to create a level of cognitive dissonance as well as a way to remember key ideas. Choosing a visual that creates this is more challenging that one might think. Using images simply because they're pretty, likely isn't all that useful. Finding an image that evokes strong emotion or challenges the viewer to do a bit of processing can be effective.

September 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDean Shareski

Hi Rati,

Sensible suggestions.


Hi Dean,

When you put it that way, I agree. I've done the same thing in a way with pictures of kids I call HPLUKs.

Thanks for the comment,


September 21, 2010 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Rati or Doug,
Do you have a rubric on hand for presentations? I would love to see one and use it with my students during my library/media classes. I am really working on teaching my third and fourth graders how to appropriately utilize presentation tools such as PowerPoint and I need a little help with what my expectations should be. Even if your rubric is for another grade level, I would love to see it and modify it for third and fourth graders. Thanks!

September 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

Hi Grace,

My suggestion might be to visit Rubistar <> and do a search on Powerpoint and similar terms. I thought the rubric created for Bone & Stones was pretty good regarding Powerpoint slide use (but not so much on content).

Hope this helps,


September 22, 2010 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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