Blame the Tools, It’s Easier

“PowerPoint is the Rodney Dangerfield of software. It gets no respect.”
Ken Goldberg

Universities should ban PowerPoint. It makes students stupid and professors boring.” That is the title of an article from the Business Insider that recently came up in my LinkedIn feed.  While I generally agree with the author’s statement that schools usually measure student satisfaction instead of student learning.  I do take exception to the idea that PowerPoint is the root of all evil.  The core of the author’s argument seems to be that lectures are generally not effective learning tools.  Again, I generally agree with the idea that lectures are not effective.  However, the author seems to blame PowerPoint for the persistence of lectures in education.

To quote the author, “Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes, and do homework is unreasonable.”  I, however, find this statement a little strange.  For starters in almost all college-level courses, students don’t read in class.  Students are expected to do their reading, textbook, novel, manuscript, and articles, either as preparation for class or review after class.  How does the use of PowerPoint in class effect students reading out of class? 

While I expect students being bored with poor lecturers could lead to decreases in attendance.  I suspect attendance has more to do with faculty policy then the technology used in the classroom.  In many undergraduate course’s faculty say it is up to the students to determine if they are going to attend or not.  They often call it “treating them like adults.”  If you think attendance is essential, require it, and then make the class time worthwhile, don’t blame random tech.

Homework, just like reading, is done outside of class.  Of all the complaints, the only one that might be valid is note taking. After all, how the instructor presents the material will affect the student’s ability to take notes.  However, is this the fault of the program or the failure of the presenter.

 Whenever people start blaming educational problems exclusively on technology, I remember a quote I heard years ago. “The students got distracted by Facebook, so we took away the Internet. The students got distracted playing Solitaire, so we took away their computers, the students got distracted doodling, so we took away their pencils.”  -Anonymous. This quote always reminds me of how easy it is to blame other things when the individual ultimately responsible for the classroom is the teacher.

So is the presentation tool PowerPoint responsible for poor classroom engagement and bad lectures or is the real problem that individuals don’t learn how to use PowerPoint.  Let’s start with the basics, suppose I’m teaching An Introduction to Circuits course. First, we need to create a new slide presentation, and PowerPoint gives us lots of choices.  Never use just a plain white background. With a white background; you can get chromatic aberration; the projector produces rainbows on the screen.  The critical thing to remember is, I don’t want anything showing up on my slides that I don’t put there.

Look at the three slides below they are all available in PowerPoint which slide do you think would be the best.

Three PowerPoint Title slides with Title An Introduction to Circuits and subtitle CH1-Voltage. Slide A has a pretty but busy background and white text in a black box. Slide B has a light blue background with a dark gradient toward the bottom right corner and a circuit pattern along the left edge. The text is white. Slide C has a light blue background with white text.
Three PowerPoint Title slides with Title An Introduction to Circuits and subtitle CH1-Voltage. Slide A has a pretty but busy background and white text in a black box. Slide B has a light blue background with a dark gradient toward the bottom right corner and a circuit pattern along the left edge. The text is white. Slide C has a light blue background with white text.

How many of you choose C as the best option?  Slide A is to use an old saying too busy.  The circuit drawings on the side of B might be a distraction.  The color gradient is not that bad an idea? We read slides from left to right and top to bottom a color gradient that uses the same pattern can help direct the eyes across the slide. However, you will have to keep this directionality in mind with everything you put on the slide. That leaves slide C, which is honestly not great.  Modern projectors are bright, light text on a light background is hard to read.  Creating an excellent presentation is all about fighting the defaults. So instead of light text use dark text, this gives us the slide below.

A PowerPoint title slide with a light blue background and black text
A PowerPoint title slide with a light blue background and black text

The next point concerning text is readability.  The most significant impact on readability is room size.  The larger the room, the bigger the text needs to be on the screen.  Dave Paradi wrote a great article on text size for presentations Selecting the correct font size.  Using Paradi’s work using a 10’ screen in a classroom where the furthest student is ~45’ away (100 student lecture hall) the smallest usable font size is 24 point.  In a 500-student lecture hall (most distant student ~150’ away) the smallest usable font is 44 point.  See the slides below.

Two PowerPoint title slides The two slide the first uses 24 Point text as the smallest and is for viewing form a maximum of 45 ft the second uses 44 point text as the smallest and is for viewing from a maximum of 150 ft.
Two PowerPoint title slides The two slide the first uses 24 Point text as the smallest and is for viewing form a maximum of 45 ft the second uses 44 point text as the smallest and is for viewing from a maximum of 150 ft.

That is a significant change in the appearance of the slides for a difference of about 100’.

Beyond text size and color, the most common complaint I hear is that PowerPoint forces you to use bullets.  However, you can change bullets. You can turn them off, or not use them.  Textboxes and other slide layouts mean you can place text anywhere you want.  Remember an excellent PowerPoint presentation requires you to fight the defaults.

Now let’s be honest while I believe most if not all the problems with PowerPoint presentation are because of a lack of training the solution is not easy.  After all, I only covered the basics of background and font size in a PowerPoint presentation.  There are also issues concerning images, slide layouts, and presentation lengths to discuss.  It is also possible to add questions to use with student response systems. Lastly, instructors can use PowerPoint presentations for active engagement. Maybe I should write a few more posts on this topic?

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

One thought on “Blame the Tools, It’s Easier

  1. Pingback: But I Can’t Use Images in PowerPoint! – The Teaching Cyborg

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