Saturday, October 30, 2010

Power Point Abuse

A senior faculty member offered me a set of power points for a class I'm not even teaching (for reasons explained below).  Out of politeness/acceptance of rank, I thanked him and relieved him of the disc.  Out of curiosity, I thought I'd look them over. 

While looking them over, I had thoughts like "How do people delude themselves into thinking that if they put something on power point, they've worked hard and/or have something of value to bring into class/the department?" (this part takes a small turn near the end).  There are 10's of MB of power point presentations and each is worse than the next.  Each slide is full.  Of WORDS.  There are a few scant visual aides.  One thing PPT is good for is things you can't draw on the board in an efficient or effective fashion.  PPT was not used in this collection to solve such issues.  There are slides that use five fonts in four colors with six or so special effects and various sizes.  The fonts and sizes change from slide to slide.  The system of designating hierarchy changes from slide to slide.  At its best points, it's useless, for the most part, it's damagingly confusing. 

Part of a faculty meeting was dedicated to praising the old man for making these available for anyone else teaching this course, or for anyone teaching another course who wants some ideas on how they can keep their course content "fresh".  Because something an old man saves on his computer and uses semester after semester after semester is the new definition of "fresh".  Here's the final kick... the old man didn't make them up.  The company that published the textbook made them up.  The PROFESSION of Educational Publishing put this slop together.  (I need to hit the coffee pot before the next meeting because obviously I missed that part).  I thought these were bad enough when an "amateur" made them up.  But this is inexcusable. 

Then I had to see what was on the discs and files I'd gotten from publishers with textbooks and proposed textbooks.  It's all like this.  It's all trash.  There was one exception.  One astronomy text came with useful visual aides.  The seven other discs I pulled out of my trunk from texts I reviewed for use, but didn't use, were garbage.  When I go back to my office I'll look at the stuff that came with the books I've chosen.  (Am I the only one who doesn't look at this stuff when they get the book?  Maybe that's bad, I'll admit that.)  They are ENCOURAGING professors to suck.  Is it a conspiracy?  If they make enough of us worthless, are they going to take over the world with online education?  WTF? 


  1. When I went to college, there was no such thing as Powerpoint. So years later, I used ppt with zero experience and zero training. It's only from reading the chronicle forum that I know my ppts are horrible. I'm an adjunct, with no funding to update my skills and no free time to independently pursue training in technology that will be obsolete by the time I master it. So I guess I'm an abuser too.

  2. I do mine from scratch.Useful medium for me as I teach anatomy and can't draw.
    I use clipart and my trusty digital camera. My presentations are always graphics intensive because I think that hold the audience's attention a little better.

    But the canned ones I've seen are pretty horrid.
    A few might be useful as a rough outline, but there's nary a one I've seen that I'd consider using without fleshing out considerably.

  3. Gladys, I'm going to guess you're being too hard on yourself. I'm not talking about the execution of the technological aspects of PPT. These things are flawed from a basic pedagogical perspective. No one in the "real world" (i.e. us - out in the field - actually teaching) would put this much effort into making anything this bad. If yours actually are as bad as these, save yourself the headache and go back to using the chalkboard. It'll save you time, and you can't cock it up by changing font for each point (unless of course you have serious DID and your handwriting changes drastically from moment to moment during class).

  4. We recently switched one of our basic texts in my department, and people were COMPLAINING because they hadn't gotten the canned Powerpoints (they were available; I got a set and promptly deleted them -- they came on a flashdrive that I repurposed for personal use). I would never dream of using the canned shit because its mostly, well, shit. I haven't seen a canned set of PPTs yet that was worth anything, and I got angry at my colleagues for being too lazy to make their own (and because the canned ones basically read the text to the students, which I don't think is my job; they have the ability to read and therefore my job is to deepen their understanding, provide examples, make them think about what they've read, etc).

  5. I introduce every semester to students by referring to myself as "Professor PowerPoint" because of my love of the medium. However, I see them as part of a performance and thus believe they should be as dynamic as possible. As such, I do try to use as much graphical content, animation, film clips, etc. as possible. And I don't stand behind the computer to change slides -- I move around the room with a remote control and a laser pointer.

    One thing I'm curious about, folks: what do you fellow PowerPoint'ers do when students ask you for yours (say, when they have a legitimate absence, not a snowflake absence, from class, such as that from a documented illness). I tend to fall back on being rigid on this one -- saying that I do not give them out, period, and that the student should consult a colleague in class to catch up on notes and see me if s/he has any questions afterward. Do y'all feel this to be too Draconian? I tend to view GIVING out the PowerPoints as promoting laziness.

  6. Gladys (and others), I teach my students how to make Powerpoints. Here are the basics. Hope this helps!

    Text: Words must be clear.
    Use something likeTimes New Roman, Arial, Calibri, Cambria, etc
    Too hard to read: Comic Sans, Blackadder ITC, Script (may be okay for headings)
    Use at least 22 point font (20 can be okay, but the bigger the better)

    Follow the 5X5 rule: No more than 5 lines/bullets per slide;
    No more than 5 words per line

    Graphics: Limit number of graphics
    Make sure they are clear, not pixelated. Photographs are best, when possible.
    Make sure they relate to the topic

  7. Oh, sorry, one more point:

    Be consistent. Use the same template, fonts, colors throughout. It's jarring to jump around (as the OP points out). Use a high contrast -- dark text on a light colored background is easiest to read. But dark blue on light blue, not so much.

  8. So I only use PPT for pictures. Only. When I show pretty maps or pictures of Starvistan and its neighboring countries, I use powerpoint.

    Here's why. A very smart man once said to me that if I want my students to do it, I should do it. That means that if I want them to write something down, I should write it down in front of them. My big lecture classes now (mostly) have "document cameras" that let me write on a sheet of paper and have the writing projected on a big screen for everyone. Voila...I am writing, they are writing. They are not rereading the slides a bajillion times.

    I sometimes give my students "3 minute writing" assignments in class. They get a topic, they write for 3 minutes, then they discuss. I do this in front of them, too...I pull up Microsoft word and I type for three minutes. I SHOW THEM what I wrote (briefly).

    I think it's a great question re: do you give your slides out. I tell students that I will, but that the slides are not really helpful on their own and that they would do well to get notes from a friend.

    (We also introduce ourselves to each other a couple of times during the first two class meetings so that everyone "knows" someone in the class who they can ask for notes.)

    I am secretly a kindergarten teacher, I guess.

    O.O. has great points, too.

  9. Here's some required reading, commiserants:

    PowerPoint Is Evil: Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely.

    By Edward Tufte

  10. I used PowerPoint during my first year of lecturing, to hide behind. Now I use it for pictures, only, like BlackDog. But I love me these new overhead projectors we have that you can put a paper document on: you can mark it up, scribble on it, whatever, and it's way easier to deal with than a chalkboard.

  11. In chemistry, the concept behind Powerpoint is old news. Except for physical chemists (who, when I was in grad school, were going in for overhead transparencies, thickly hand-written), chemists have used slides forever. Each slide shows a structure, or a reaction, or related group of reactions, and the speaker riffs on it for a minute or two per slide. The only text is the literature citation.

    The key point here is to use the slide as a departure point. It's never to be a ding an sich, never the meat of the presentation. It's a unifying point or a memory jog for the speaker, or a memorable image that can't be quickly sketched on the board.

    You learn to do that, and Powerpoint will always be an adjunct to your performance, never the performance itself. You need to keep control of it.

    In class, I'll put up a concept (or list of concepts, animated to come up one at a time) and explain the concepts using the whiteboard. I'll use slides to show examples of what I'm talking about, or an image I hope will cement the concept in their minds.

  12. My discipline is all about communicating information effectively, and one of the objects/types of communication product we study (and teach students how to use effectively) is PPT. Even so, it's amazing how many shitty PPTs I've seen from my colleagues; these are people who ought to know better. As for me, I give great PPT.

    Oh, and Tufte? He's a hack. He makes a pretty book and does a great job of selling his ideas, but that's all. Tufte hasn't had anything new to say for years, seems to be ignorant of postmodernism, displays no knowledge whatsoever of rhetorical theory, can't tell the difference between fine art and graphic design, knows nothing about either one, and doesn't do simple library research. For example, in his book "Visual Explanations," Tufte devotes a chapter to what he calls the "Smallest Effective Difference" between images. Great. Problem is, that's been the subject of psychological research since the very inception of the field. But does he note that? No. Instead, Tufte acts as if he invented the idea. And he also seems to be allergic to the word "Gestalt," even though he salts his books with Gestalt psychology ideas. I guess admitting that somebody else had the idea first does bad things for sales...

  13. Well... I'm a Tufte follower, but tend to violate his ideas in my classes (as opposed to formal presentations; there shouldn't be a difference, but there is). Basically, I take any canned PPTs and combine/delete/edit with my own stuff (or topical material). Thus, I'm fairly textbook neutral and get across the material that I believe is important.

    What you need to do is get a sense on how the class is going and just use these for backups; hit the important stuff. The best response I see are for my own slides that don't just rehash what the textbook or articles say.

    On the issue of posting the slides, I always post the 2x3 handout version in a PDF (and that's all).

  14. I use ppt in every lecture, but only as a thought-provoking backdrop. If my discussion isn't more interesting than the wall behind me, I'm doing something wrong.

    I tend to follow Guy Kawasaki's 10-20-30 rule for a one-hour lecture:
    - No more than 10 slides,
    - that take 20 minutes to cover,
    - and use fonts of 30-point or larger.

    After that, it's open discussion. The 30-point rule prevents one from cluttering the slide with details that should be covered verbally or in separate lecture notes.

    I am told that my ppt decks are actually useful. I post a stripped down version on Blackboard for students (with the digressions, surprises, and jokes removed).

    My question for people who also give out versions of their ppts... do you give them in advance, or afterwards? There are pros/cons of each.

  15. @Ockham: If I do a presentation, I always give my stuff out prior to the talk (a Tufte-ism). However, in a class, I wait until AFTER the class to post; otherwise, some students will feel that they don't need to attend or pay attention in class or read the source material (and some of my slides have questions with the answers (after discussion) so I don't want to give those away).

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  17. I don’t think we should dismiss Edward Tufte too readily. I think his books are very beautiful, and genuinely useful. He also gets all the examples right in my field, because he did his homework. My field is astronomy and spaceflight: his examples were the map of the large-scale structure of the Universe, the Pioneer plaque, the overheads that led to the Challenger disaster, the PowerPoints that led to the Columbia disaster, and lots about Galileo. I hate how nearly everyone else, particularly journalists, get everything in my field “not quite right”: it makes you wonder how they do with politics and wars.

    Tufte is mostly right about how people abuse PowerPoint. Not all these sins are unique to PowerPoint, though. It’s perfectly possible to turn one’s back on the audience and read from script while using a document camera, overhead projector, 35mm slides, or even lantern slides. (I’m showing my age: overheads were new at the beginning of Project Apollo, and 35mm slides made lantern slides obsolete at about the same time.) Yes, if Abraham Lincoln had used PowerPoint for the Gettysburg Address it wouldn’t have been as good, but overheads or 35mm slides wouldn’t have helped, either.

    Not all of us are as privileged as Edward Tufte, who is an Emeritus Professor who owns his own publishing company. Some of us have no choice: we’re required to use PowerPoint. Tufte, when pressed in an interview in his book, “Beautiful Evidence,” admitted that PowerPoint still can be used “as a low-resolution slide viewer.”

    In other words, PowerPoint can display pictures, much like we used to with overheads and 35mm slides. I never use the branding or the gimmicks or the “Phluff.” So, why bother with PowerPoint?

    PowerPoint does have some advantages. Both overheads and 35mm slides start to look dusty after one use, particularly when used in a classroom with whiteboards or chalkboards. PowerPoint slides are a whole lot easier to make up than 35mm slides, which used to require a trip to a camera store to get them developed. (You’d be hard pressed to find a camera store that can process 35mm slides, these days.) If you show up to a conference in my field with a stack of overheads, the organizers will roll their eyes, as if to say, “Who IS this old fogey?” Try it with a box of 35mm slides and you’ll be out of luck, since they won’t have a working projector. My department hasn’t had one for over five years, around when I stopped using 35mm slides in my astronomy classes (and as usual, I was among the last to do it).

    There is still a great deal of educational value of writing on the board, and expecting students to copy it. The act of writing it can and does help one learn, particularly in mathematics or similar fields. I therefore still present much of my classes in this way, and it still works.

    By the way, our students are sick of hearing us complain that whiteboards are inferior to chalkboards. We’ve been doing this a long time now. Face it, we’re not going to get the chalkboards back, so stop it. I think you are spot-on with how to use slides. Now you know why my students rarely ask for copies of my PowerPoint slides (which I never give out, because it would give them a license not to come to class). They’re not easy to follow, if read outside of class, because they don’t come with the text that I write on the board. They also don’t include the voice coming from me, which allows two-way communication.

    @Marcia: That nifty new “overhead projector” you’re referring to that reads paper and not specially prepared transparencies is a document camera. I like them too, but they’re still not a substitute for writing on the board, since one of the advantages of the board is to slow the instructor down, enough to be comprehensible.

  18. Anecdote!

    I once had the opportunity to see a very well-known man (CEO of Fortune 500 country and probable billionaire) give a speech on how to incorporate his wealth/health into your own life. He had two speeches scheduled due to demand, one in the morning and one in the evening. I was connected to the organization who asked him to speak, so I saw both.

    During the first, the PPT machine was not working out. A cord was missing or something. And the guy just went nuts. This possible billionaire about to preach to us went NUUUUTS about how unprofessional the conference space was, yadda yadda yadda.

    He did the presentation without his slides. And it was compelling. Interesting. Despite my dislike of this individual, despite his tantrum, he won me over. It was good material.

    Then the afternoon speech. PPT was fixed (by his demand). And the slides WERE AWFUL. My GOD how awful! His exact text, his words, the words coming out of his mouth, verbatim, on the screen. With the PPT in front of him, his energetic proposal and compelling argument were lost. Half the crowd fell asleep as he read out loud.

    I've only used PPT for pictures or graphs where saying the numbers out loud would be too confusing but seeing them can be striking. And this guy's presentation is one reason why. I think it's lazy teaching and even the best intentions can lead to bad results. It's so easy to do poorly, but so hard to do well.

    And I remember as a student how PPT teaching made me only write down the words on the PPT. It's just so hard to listen when you have 2 foot high words at the front of the class.

  19. The canned PowerPoint slides are dull as dust for students. Only use them if you want students to tune out the entire lecture and fall asleep in class as soon as you hit the lights. I try to be a good student, but having to read the textbook, then come to class and see the very same illustrations from the textbook on the screen, and listen the professor read the slides aloud, is the most boring thing imaginable. You might as well save some electricity and just read the textbook aloud to your class for three hours a week.

    Maybe there are publishers who do a better job with the canned slides, but the CS ones I've seen are simply reproductions of pages in the textbook and some of the worst professors I've had are nothing more than delivery systems for the publisher's PowerPoint slides.

    When I see a professor pull out his own lecture notes and pick up a dry-erase marker, I know that's going to be a good class, or at least an engaging one. I have a lot of respect for professors who take the time to prepare their own lecture notes. I know it's more work to do so, but I enroll in classes to learn from the professor's expertise, not just from the textbook.

  20. I sometimes just have WORD or NOTEPAD projected. (Normally Word since I can do a "zoom" to make things bigger.)

    Then I can bring up some prepared text I want them to see, but without the fussy formatting problems, or I can type in real time some examples to solve, where clarity matters and my handwriting could be a problem(such as exactly where the punctuation goes.)

    Normally I mostly use the whiteboard, and projector just for websites. I carry my own markers and eraser with me.

  21. Count me among those who use ppt exclusively as a "low-resolution slide projector." Like Froderick, I used to have a lot of 35mm slides that I would use in class when there was an image I wanted to talk to them about. I had a stack of pre-loaded carousels in my office so I wouldn't have to waste a lot of time putting slides in and then taking them out again later.
    Now I have my slide shows in ppt presentations. Advantage: I can make changes from semester to semester with greater ease. Disadvantage: the images aren't nearly as sharp.
    As far as projecting text, I still prefer to write on the board (we still have chalkboards, by the way). I agree with Froderick that it slows you down when you might otherwise rush. And I've almost never seen a ppt presentation where I thought to myself "wow, that was so much better than an old-fashioned talk would have been." The tool is only as good as the craftsman, and in this case, I think there are very few talented craftsmen and a whole lot of plodders.

  22. Froderick -- are you really showing magic lantern slides? Because that would warm the old-photo-process cockles of my black and dismal heart.

    I would really like to use the chalkboard, and I do use it in smaller classes. The document camera (aka glorified overhead projector) is handy for my 190 person class to make sure that everyone can actually see and read my writing.

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  24. No Frod, I mean I slap a piece of paper down on the document projector/nifty overhead/whatever, and WRITE ON IT. Like a BLACKBOARD. The difference being I am not covered with chalk, sliding huge boards up and down like a maniac, and showing my navel while I strain to pull down the top board. Nor am I writing over the halfway-erased junk someone left behind, or too faintly, or snapping chalk in two trying to write more clearly. It's just me and my clean sheet of paper, slowing down and feeling groovy.

    You could be a wee bit less condescending and I'd like you better than I already do.

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  26. @Blackdog: I don't show lantern slides. I doubt that anywhere in my city could still process them. (I recently wanted to refurbish an old Schmidt camera, so I searched for a photo lab that could still process individual cut pieces of 35mm film. There still is one: it's in Colorado. Planetaria are currently having an expensive time replacing the 35mm carousel projectors they've used for years, since Kodak has stopped making them. Not that I'm sad to see chemical photography technology go: I used to hate how a darkroom smelled.) When I was an undergraduate in the late '70s/early '80s, we had a very old astronomy professor who still did show lantern slides. I stopped giggling at him for being so old-fashioned when someone pointed out that the quality of his pictures was superb.

    @Marcia: I'm sorry, but it is called a document camera. I still prefer the whiteboards (and chalkboards are even better, when I can still get them), because they slow me down more.

  27. Wow, chalkboards were banned from my university ages ago! There was a massive backlash and they ended up having to keep two chalkboards because a couple of math professors threatened to sue or something like that. Every other classroom has dry-erase boards. Probably harder on the professors (the markers seem kind of toxic), but easier for the students to see (because of the higher contrast).

    I don't mind the occasional slide of a complicated diagram that would take forever to hand-draw, but only if the professor needs to point to it, or if it's not in the textbook. Otherwise, I'd rather just look at the textbook (less glare).


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