Summer is a time to recoup the energies spent in the last academic year, and it can also be a time of growth, experimentation, reflection, etc. You all know what I’m talking about. This past summer was a particularly rich one for me in learning new tricks of the teaching trade, in part due to my interest in the potential of online learning for blended courses. This was the topic of the Faculty Development summer seminar, which provoked some rich discussion about whether adding online components to a course meant that it became a course and a half of work for students or whether development of online components (e.g., discussion boards, chat, etc.) added substantially to faculty time commitment to the course.
Most useful, however, was the introduction to and practice with online learning tools. One of our seminar homework assignments was to respond to specific questions for the day using one of the tools, and so I experimented with "Prezi," a web-based presentation application that zooms the viewer around a canvas in and out of highlighted text and figures (it also makes some viewers slightly seasick). It is a welcome change from the standardized (and boring) format of PowerPoint (more on that later). For an introduction to what Prezi can do, go to the following webpage: http://prezi.com/explore/ . Another useful tool I experimented with is "screencasts," which are basically video recordings of screen captures that allow viewers to follow you while you demonstrate a series of steps to perform a particular function (e.g., setting up an Excel spreadsheet or executing a statistical analysis of data). I thought this tool would be particularly useful for my freshmen students to practice navigating the course Blackboard site to find certain information, or to introduce them to using their textbook website for review and practice problems.
My recent disenchantment with PowerPoint began long before my introduction to Prezi this summer, but was reinforced when I went to a workshop this summer on "Visual Display of Quantitative Information" featuring Edward Tufte, guru of the art of presenting visual information. Tufte’s comment on the dangers of PowerPoint were: "If you think your students are stupid, you'll make them stupid..." by using PPT format for presenting information to them. He argues that the PowerPoint structure forces you to do all things antithetical to good communication with your students. I was impressed with his arguments and have already started to think about alternative methods. For those looking for more information on this topic, Tufte has published a slim volume on the topic: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint , with the preface
Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations?