Technology is not a Toy!

Star Wars’ producer, George Lucas, and former Illinois Governor and presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson would surely have had a lively conversation if able to discuss the place of technology in education! They would be at opposite ends of the love-hate relationship that teachers of all levels experience as they try to incorporate the newest technological innovations in their classrooms. Lucas, by virtue of his colossal Hollywood success and his dedication to utilizing the best of that world in the world of education, has contributed enormous amounts of money and resources to schools interested in enhancing learning with technology. Stevenson, on the other hand, was so averse to technology that in a 1954 speech at Columbia University, he once described it this way: “Technology, while adding to our physical ease, throws daily another loop of fine wire around our souls.” (1955, p. 156).

Even the most common educational technology, presentation software, yields similarly mixed reviews. Increasingly a staple in the college classroom, Power Point and its cousins are perceived both as exciting opportunities and as wearying attacks on students’ “souls.” I will consider the controversy here and suggest concrete tips to capitalize on the software’s strengths for those who choose to use it.

Changes in technology are so swift and constant that it is difficult to keep up with new capabilities. We are encouraged to continue using the technology even though not all of us have been given instructions in those new capabilities. I hope to “catch everyone up” with the suggestions noted here.

Bane or Boon?

Research on presentation software’s impact on students suggests two reasons why it may be an asset to learning. First, the dynamism of the visual image accompanying the instructor’s voice can help capture and focus student attention. While this is true of all visual aids, the advantage is magnified when the visual is as sophisticated and complex as presentation software.

The second advantage is more unique to the specific nature of presentation software: its ability to incorporate a variety of extraordinarily clarifying images within the visual aid. By adding film clips, diagram close-ups, sound and 3-D images, it can take students to a new level of content comprehension. We experience this advantage every time we hear the collective “aah” of students as they literally see brain function or statistics broken out into meaningful segments.

At the opposite end of the spectrum we find anecdotal evidence of the narcotic impact of slide show abuse. Students complain of being overloaded with onscreen information. Since their natural tendency is write down whatever appears on the screen, students often find themselves frantically copying information from a slide and thus blocking out the sound of the instructor’s voice. Students also complain that so much of the class period is devoted to watching slide after slide in a semi-darkened room that their physical alertness is actually diminished. In other words, they fall asleep!

One final complaint about presentation software’s impact comes not from students, but from educators and researchers who suggest that bullet points discourage critical thought. The best slides, visually, are those that are succinct. However, in their brevity lies an implied simplicity that often fools the viewer/learner into an unchallenging mindset. NASA recently “blamed” Power Point for some of their mission failures. They reported that engineers who received research reports via software presentations failed often to grasp the complex seriousness of the data being presented.

So, where does this diversity of opinion lead us? Put simply, presentation technology is not a toy. It is still so relatively new that many of us are taking to it like we did the hula-hoop—lots of enthusiasm and not much technique. To capitalize on the advantages of the technology and not be victimized by its playful allure, we should learn from those who are finding that it is a device that actually benefits student attention and comprehension.

We know that various classroom props should always be used to enhance clarity of message as well as sustain teacher-student immediacy (Mester & Tauber, 2004). As research on immediacy has concluded, students’ trust of and respect for the teacher increases their likelihood of learning and teachers’ presentation styles can increase that trust and respect. So, the recommendations noted here are intended to contribute to an immediacy-enhancing presentation style. We can take steps both in how we prepare a slidewear-assisted class and in how we actually present it to accomplish that aim, thus increasing student learning.

While Preparing

Preparation Rule #1: Minimize the content of a single slide. Since the basic function of anything presented visually in class is to clarify and emphasize, each slide should provide a minimal amount of verbiage. The slides are not speaker notes, nor are they complete explanations. They are “highlights” that will help the students grasp the most important point of whatever the instructor is explaining. A highlight can be quickly jotted down in students’ notes, allowing them to be more attentive to the instructor than to the screen, adding to their brief note as the explanation progresses.

For instance, a slide of the explanation presented here would probably look like this:

This sample slide contains only the briefest of information and allows me to introduce the “6 X 6” rule without writing it out in an unnecessarily boring essay-form. The “6 X 6” rule derives from the research of a number of vision scholars who concluded that 6 words or numbers across the field and six down is the maximum that a viewer can grasp in a single look. Anything over that number requires so much concentrated visual attention that accompanying speech is ignored. Naturally, part of the reason for this rule is that the more figures on a screen, the smaller the font will need to be. Small fonts cannot be read beyond the front row of class.

This minimalist guideline is especially important when including charts in your presentation. Even if the research being presented references ten variables over two-year increments of a twenty-year span, the table created for a single slide should include no more than six rows and six columns, not ten and ten. Consequently, in creating the table, you will select the most important variables or the most meaningful time periods. Such a compression of data has the benefit of forcing the instructor into framing a narrow focus for the explanation that will be more readily understood by the students. NASA would remind us, however, to be careful of oversimplifying in the interest of succinctness of data.

Preparation Rule #2: Select uncomplicated images. The best use of Power Point slides is their provision of visual images that clarify the instructor’s spoken words. We can include diagrams, models, photographs and video either reproduced from another source or of our own creation. As the old adage suggests, these “pictures” speak volumes.

At a recent technology conference, a speaker who teaches speech pathology explained a new technique in stuttering therapy. After a brief orientation, she segued to a series of video slides showing the progress of one patient treated with the procedure, ending with a split screen showing before and after images of the patient. The illustration was quite striking and left the audience with a much clearer image of the procedure and its benefits than the speaker’s own words could possibly have done.

There is one “downside” to incorporating such complex video into a Power Point program – the size of the file needed to handle it. For the above presentation, the speaker had to dump quite a bit of material from other files to create space for the video.

The benefit, however, was the clarity created by these sharply contrasting images. It worked because the images were simple: one person seated at an empty table and speaking a few sentences. There were no distracting images of the therapist or other persons, no busy backgrounds or irrelevant sounds.

Such simplicity should mark all visual images seen in presentation programs. Black and white line drawings on a plain background are easy for the viewer to see and understand and provide the narrow focus needed for learning. Images should be large enough that everyone in the room can see their detail and know what they are looking at. Like a good map, slide images have high contrast, clear labels and are big enough to read without a magnifying glass.

Keeping the image simple also applies to the slide backgrounds and font selection. There are many beautiful and graphically striking backgrounds available. Choose one that will help your students’ eyes focus on the slide’s substantive content, not the pretty background. The font, like the drawings or pictures, should be large enough for all to see and read at a glance—not like this one! Lucida, Bookman, Times New Roman, Franklin Gothic and even Comic fit the bill quite nicely, especially if used in bold.

Simplicity of format also applies to audio features available in the software. Although there are plenty of fun sounds available to add flair to transitions, the best advice is not to use any of them. The sounds do not clarify or emphasize content. They serve no pedagogical function and constitute a distraction. Some students even report getting annoyed by the repeated “bells and whistles.” Annoyance deters learning. So only use sound for imported video clips, not just to “decorate” the basic informational slides.

Some well-crafted slides may be available as supplements for textbooks. Feel free to use them if permitted under the book’s copyright and if they meet the standards of clarity and simplicity as outlined here.

Preparation Rule #3: Keep the room well lit. Prior to lecturing with presentation slides, try showing them in the room in which you will speak. Experiment with different light switches to determine the combination that will allow greatest visibility of the on-screen images without plunging the students into darkness.

Think about it. For learning to happen, students must be engaged in the process. At the very least, this means that they must be awake! More than that, they must be drawn into a sense of dialogue with the instructor. Therefore, the instructor must be visible; the students must be able to take notes; and both need to see and respond to feedback from the other. So the room in which we learn must be relatively well lit. Using presentation slides that are more visible in low lighting does not change that fundamental standard. Trying to teach in a completely darkened room with the only light coming from the screen virtually insures that learning will not happen!

The best arrangement, then, is to dim the bank of lights immediately in front of the screen and leave all other room lights on as normal. If the slides are only part of your lecture, return all lights to full brightness immediately after the slide presentation is completed. Do not continue to stand and speak in a dimly lit area. This brings us to presenting the finished product.

While Presenting

Presentation Rule #1: Synchronize visual images with the spoken word. Presentation technology allows several options relating to the pace at which the slides and their component parts are revealed. Overall, the slide show can be manually advanced or operate on a timed advance. In addition, each slide can be fully or gradually revealed. To be most useful to your students, the best combination of options is the use of manual advance and gradual reveal.

Manual advance allows you to stand anywhere in the room (with a remote mouse) and reveal the slide only when you are actually talking about the specific point it states or clarifies. Doing so means that your students will receive a coordinated message, making learning more likely. Additionally, manual advance allows you to spend as much or as little time on a single slide as circumstances dictate, pausing for questions or to add detail should students appear confused.

That same reasoning applies to gradually revealing the content of a single slide. Students will dutifully write whatever appears on the screen; so only show the specific point you want to address. A single slide may, for instance, list the five symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder; but you plan to explain each in some detail. If you show all five symptoms at once, the students will be so busy writing down numbers 2-5 that they will not even hear your explanation of #1. That “attention deficit” can be remedied by revealing just one symptom, explaining it and then revealing the next, etc.

Presentation Rule #2: Use optional features as needed. Synchronizing your spoken words with the visual images is easily achievable by using optional features built into the software. By selecting options, you can highlight certain points, clarify references and temporarily blank the screen while you speak.

Options can be accessed several different ways. The fastest may be to click on the pale arrow that will automatically appear in the bottom left hand corner of each slide. Doing so takes you to imbedded pointers, highlighting options and avenues for moving through the program in different directions. Just click on the arrow or pencil and then move it by dragging the mouse as you draw the students’ attention to a particular part of a diagram or an especially important point. Similar emphasis can be accomplished by using the highlighter or underlining options.

Another option that is very valuable but rarely used is the blank screen. If your progress through the program needs to be interrupted, make the screen blank rather than leaving the preceding slide in view. Again—remember the students—they will pay attention to what is on the screen, not to you. So, get rid of that image by hitting “w” or “b” on your keyboard to switch temporarily to an all-white or all-black screen. Hit the button again when you are ready to return to the show.

Presentation Rule #3: Speak to the students, not the screen. This is an important one! The most common mistake is the instructor speaking while looking at the screen instead of at the students. It is naturally tempting to turn back to look at what is on the screen—after all, it is huge; it is bright; it is interesting. However, you put the words and images up there. You know what it says. You do not need to look at it as you speak.

Of course, you will want to take a quick glance to make sure that the correct image is appearing. Sometimes, we do inadvertently tap the mouse a little too much and the program skips ahead. A quick peek at the monitor or the screen should suffice to provide that assurance. Turning your back on the students to read from the screen, on the other hand, is disastrous for two reasons.

Reading from the screen causes students to wonder why we are not familiar enough with the material to talk about it without using the screen images as cue card. If they have that suspicion, then we have damaged the vital teacher immediacy referenced earlier.

Turning your back to read from the screen has the additional disadvantage of cutting off eye contact with the students. Anytime that happens in a classroom, there are negative results: a diminishing of student attention, an increase in student misbehavior, a reduced sense of trust between students and instructor.

Occasionally, instructors turn their backs on the students, not to read from the screen, but to point at something on it. Big mistake! As you walk in front of the projected image, it is now projected on you. So, trying to point at something with your hand actually decreases clarity since the image shows up on the creased, three-dimensional surface of your hand, instead of on the smooth screen. Instead, use a pointer. The imbedded pointers work fine as do hand-held laser pointers. Use the pointer only when you need to reference a particular concept or diagrammatic feature; do not let it roam around the screen idly while you speak.

Presentation Rule #4: Be prepared for “mechanical difficulties.” Contrary to what some of us have been told, computers do make mistakes! Now and then, a well-prepared slidewear presentation will not cooperate with the instructor. It may not be accessible from the classroom computer; may have succumbed to a virus; the hardware may be compromised—any number of things can go wrong. Be prepared! Faculty need to arrive at class early to ensure necessary equipment is working properly but beware of focusing so much on the technology that you ignore your students. After all, the usual purpose of coming early to class is to create rapport, answer student questions, and the like. If you do encounter problems, the best response is to switch to “back-up” visual aids such as transparencies or handouts. These can be easily prepared at the same time as the creation of the slideware show and should always be kept handy.

Conclusion

Like any new strategies that become available to us as teachers, presentation software is fun to play with. There are so many things it can do and it will be able to do more with each passing year. We should experiment with it. We should consider that this technology might help to present difficult material in a way that holds student attention and assists meaningful learning. What we should not do is play with it in the classroom. That is, adopt it selectively instead of using fancy slide shows just because we can.

Once you have made the decision to learn how and where the presentation software could assist your class, pledge to use it correctly. Create slides that are clear, nondistracting and purposeful. Use them with sensitivity to the reality of student attention. Finally, be prepared to fine-tune your use of this new tool, not just play with it!

References and Recommended Readings

Brooks, S., & Bylo, B. (2004) Using PowerPoint. Retrieved July 1, 2005 from www.internet4classrooms.com.
Chickering, A.W., & Ehrman, S. C. (1996) Implementing the seven principles: Technology as lever. American Association for Higher Education/Teaching and Learning with Technology Group. Retrieved June 1, 2005 from www.tltgroup.org/programs/seven.html.
Daniel, D. B. (2005). How to ruin a perfectly good lecture: Presentation software as a teaching tool. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann & W. Buskist (Eds.), Voices of NITOP: Memorable talks from the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (pp. 119-130). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.
Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mester, C. S., & Tauber, R. T. Acting lessons for teachers: Using performance skills in the classroom. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology (Vol. 2) (pp.157-164). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.
Microsoft PowerPoint for Windows Support Home Page: www.microsoft.com/MSPowerPointSupport.
Stevenson, A. E. (1955, October). My faith in democratic capitalism, Fortune, 126-127, 156, 160, 162, 167-168.
Tufte, E. (2003, November 9) Power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. Wired, 118.
Zhu, E., & Kaplan, M. (2001) Technology for teaching. In W. J. McKeachie (Ed.), McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers. (pp. 204-224). Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.


Observer Vol.19, No.9 September, 2006

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