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Each Instructional Technology Has Its Place

2009 November 11

There has been a recent flurry of discussion about the use of PowerPoint in college classrooms, and by extension, corporate training rooms.  As far as I can tell, it started with this post from a college student discussing her frustration at instructors who use PowerPoint, with echoes on Speaker Confessions and even on Slashdot.  Speaker Confessions is certainly the most amusing, primarily because it criticizes the use of bulleted lists in a bulleted list.

I certainly understand the frustration.  PowerPoint has become a standard fallback for speakers, both in college and in corporate training.  It is easy to put together, and easier to read from.  Of course, that’s really the problem – speakers putting together (or worse, downloading from textbook publishers) densely worded PowerPoint slides and then reading them verbatim to the audience.

That’s not the way to give a presentation, in any setting.  But it doesn’t mean that PowerPoint itself is a bad idea.  Each instructional technology has its place, and the key to good design is to choose instructional technologies to fit training objectives. Read that again, because it’s important.

I’m betting most training designers approach this from the opposite direction.  They choose PowerPoint as a medium and then try to figure out a way to say what they want to say using the tools PowerPoint provides.  That is backwards and inefficient. This is also one of the reasons that web-based courses are often littered with poor design decisions: a designer says “I want to make this an online course!” without any real reason to do so.

I’ll give you a few examples of the design decisions I make, in a conveniently formatted bulleted list:

  • I teach an undergraduate-level Introduction to Industrial/Organizational Psychology at ODU, and I do so entirely in PowerPoint.  I do this because many concepts in I/O are hierarchical, and the layering of concepts is much clearer when presented in bulleted form – you can actually see the hierarchy of concepts, layered within one another.  I put maybe 4 6-word bullets on a slide, and I spend 4 minutes per slide.  That’s one minute of description and explanation per 6-word bullet. While the concept headings are on the slide, the supporting details are not.  If a point is not central enough or complex enough to discuss for more than a minute, it doesn’t deserve its own bullet.
  • I also teach an introductory statistics course, and I do so one-third (1/3) in PowerPoint and two-thirds (2/3) on a whiteboard.  The third in PowerPoint is the first 5 weeks of class on background material, and I do so because I put together a set of colorful, animated demonstrations of abstract concepts that are difficult to explain without a visual.  But after the background material is done, we get to the actual by-hand solving of mathematical equations, which is itself key to understanding why statistics function the way they do.  I write and solve these problems by hand, pausing at each step to explain it, because that allows students to see my logic and reasoning as I progress through each problem. While that could be done in PowerPoint with complex custom animations, it’s simply not worth the effort – it takes less time and is clearer on the whiteboard.
  • I also teach a graduate-level series on advanced concepts in personnel psychology.  I use absolutely no PowerPoint or a whiteboard in either of these courses, because the key to student understanding at this stage is to talk through and process the concepts in discussion.  PowerPoint oversimplifies and distracts from these discussions, so I choose not to use it.  When we do have a complicated set of discussion points to go through, I will sometimes include supplementary material or outlines on paper.  When I have a supplementary video or a dataset to discuss, I turn on the computer to display it, and then turn that computer off immediately afterwards.

That’s right.  I teach 1) using PowerPoint, 2) using paper handouts, and/or 3) writing on a whiteboard.  I choose the instructional technology best suited to the objectives I am trying to meet.

For you corporate folks, don’t let the word “instructional” throw you off – if you’re giving a presentation about anything, you’re trying to teach something to somebody.  Don’t fall back on a PowerPoint presentation full of bulleted lists just because you can.  Figure out what you’re trying to say first; then choose how to say it.

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  1. November 11, 2009

    Great post! I had been experiencing growing PowerPoint paranoia. I do rely on that tool quite a bit, and i started to wonder if it was appropriate. After reading your post, I realized that i do so to organize both my thoughts and my audience’s expectations. Complicated concepts end up on the whiteboard, as do any concepts that I want my audience to keep in mind across multiple slides.

    Like you, all of my statistics training was delivered via white board , and PowerPoint was rarely used in more advanced, discussion-based courses. So far as I can tell, I use these tools much in the same way you do. this gives me confidence that I am doing things right (or, if I am wrong, at least I am in good company).

  2. November 11, 2009

    Based on what you’re saying, I’d agree – using the whiteboard because it is better able to serve your goals really illustrates the heart of efficient instructional design. Just make sure to keep that door open – if a new technology comes along, always be willing to think, “Could this be used to improve my message?”

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