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Wednesday, May 05, 2004
Powerpoint Thoughts

"Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials." (Edward Tufte, "Powerpoint is Evil")

I'm with Edward and do see a danger of classroom use of Powerpoint, especially in the early grades. Writing (hopefully in sentences) needs to be promoted and Powerpoint is a way to short circuit that process. I would not want to see teachers asking for reports in a Powerpoint format only.

Powerpoint could be used for storyboarding and creating short illustrated stories. This would be an excellent use in lower grades. The software has a great set of drawing and painting tools.

I felt some of my ambivalence toward the software when creating my presentation for class. How much detail do I need to provide? Isn't this - a Powerpoint slide file - supposed to be an aid to a presentation and not a piece in itself? Can I really write something in bullet points?

The rubrics for the assignment did not help much. Evaluation points are listed for "2-3 different styles of graphics" and "2-3 different styles of text." Graphics should be used to enhance the message and I decided my presentation was content-based, conveying information, and did not need any decoration since I could not think of any graphics that would actually enhance the information for the reader.

This is a problem. Creating a rubric that calls for several graphics and several text styles implies creating content for a design rather than designing for the content. But I think this is a common way to approach Powerpoint and I think many budding Powerpoint designers want to use the neat features and shoehorn their content in among the decorative graphics, garish text styles and supercharged transitions and builds.

Text styles can be dangerous and use of several can easily make a presentation (Powerpoint-based or printed) look messy and confusing. Designers recommend that if you don't have experience working with text styles and fonts, it's best to simplify, even sticking to one choice.

But herein lies a major problem with Powerpoint. It's too easy to add the images, change the fonts, and choose from a stable of ill- conceived design templates. Even if you have nothing to say, you can dress it up, hoping that nobody will notice that the meat is sparse or missing altogether.

If anything can make a bad lecture or presentation worse, it's Powerpoint. Yet it can be a helpful tool in the right hands. But it often seems those hands are few and far between.

I like to use it as a brainstorming tool. I can write out my thoughts, order them in various ways and slowly organize my lecture. I will then use the slides in the lecture and hand out copies for notes. But most of my content will not be on the slides. It will be in my brain and the slides will be a subtle guide to push me along the right track. I tend to get sidetracked so the slides can help me stay focused.

Who is Edward Tufte?

Edward Tufte wrote "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information," a classic work on making charts and graphs that truly impart knowledge in an interesting manner. He's also an artist.

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