Sans Slideware: Debates & Rejoiners

Clearpreso's MD, Edward Fidgeon-Kavanagh and NCI's Dr Eugene O'Loughlin have written pieces on their approaches to Slideware in reaction to this paper I'm trying to pull together at the moment. I'm really grateful for their thoughts and time-both authors raise important and interesting questions on Slideware usage, its appropriateness, and its efficacy. I'd also appreciate any thoughts you, the reader, have on this paper and the issues it raises.

I should first clarify that I'm interested in the effects of slideware on teaching alone. I agree with Ed and Eugene that good slides make really good sales pitches, and really good public lectures, which is why you'll see me slinging out well designed slides at conferences and talks, selling my ideas. Ed says PowerPoint and slideware help lecturers communicate, to transfer information. That is true. Lecturers are in the business of communicating. Communicating, fundamentally, is about transferring emotion: I love my product/service/idea, so should you, and here's why. That makes for a great presentation. Just look at Steve Jobs do it. When we teach, we do a little of that, that conveying of emotion, of enthusiasm for a set of ideas. But we do a lot more: not only do we show how much we like our subject, we show how this information is useful, and what to do with that information, and how that information relates to other things. Eugene brings this point out nicely--it might take you 10 minutes to read through his slides, because slideware's level of information density is so low, but Eugene can easily talk for more than an hour using one slide. The slides are tools, backups, not crutches. They are takeaways from the lecture, in the form of handouts. That's all true. But Eugene would be just as good a lecturer without the slides, and a properly written 2 or 3 page handout would do the job better than printed slides, and students would be engaged because they wouldn't have the slides as backups, as crutches. Students would have to read, write, and think, in sentences. Eugene gives two examples of great lecturers he's known who didn't use slides. Three of the best lecturers I've ever seen are Duncan Foley, Kevin O'Rourke, and K. Vela Velupillai, the last of whom I corrupted into using PowerPoint, sadly. Neither Foley, nor O'Rourke, nor Velupillai used slides, they used handouts and old school chalk and talk, and they were fantastic. I believe asking either Foley or O'Rourke to use slideware would have crippled their effectiveness as lecturers. I think most lecturers would be as effective, if not more so, as teachers of their subjects, without slideware.

I also think slideware is brilliant as a projector operating system. Slideware is great for showing images, and selected charts. Slideware is very poor at displaying charts well, because of its resolution relative to printed paper, and because slideware comes with lots of 'chartjunk' that makes the display of quantitative information difficult and messy, relative to a simple table. You could just use your slides for graphs and images, I suppose. However, students are now so weaned on slides as the primary information display that a slideshow with five or six images or charts and no text would annoy and irritate them immensely--they might think the lecturer was too lazy to do up notes! For the moment, I think it's better to separate slides from lectures entirely, and then reintroduce them only gradually.

The best slides are beautiful, but really, information-free. One study has shown sparse text and graphics on slides (low information) are best for student performance in essays, relative to densely packed slides. That might be true, but it only serves to highlight the face that the best slides carry next to no information per slide, so you need hundreds of them to replace just talking to people with a handout. The apogee of the low information slide is the Lessig method, where each slide only contains one or two words. Again, these are great presenters and slideware innovators, not the 95% of slideware users who use bullet points and out of the box templates, and even they can't get the level of information on their slides above a few paragraphs.

Source: Presentation Zen

Source: Presentation Zen

Think what sitting there, watching slide after slide after slide, does to the learner. They are passive, bored, and complex information is chopped up and fed to them relentlessly over 2 hours. Much better to engage them, to ask them questions, ask them to participate, perhaps even make something. No slideware program can help do that. That's what I want my lectures to be. PowerPoint is lazy, and helps lazy lecturers do a poor job. It forces poor lecturers into 'slide readers', and the best lecturers into a boring, linear format, that they escape from, as Eugene shows.

3 thoughts on “Sans Slideware: Debates & Rejoiners

  1. Brian O' Hanlon

    I mentioned before the contrast I find between a company such as Intel and a company such as Apple. I spoke about Andy Grove, who created a culture of constructive confrontation within Intel. (I think it built on the culture originated at DEC, but I could not be absolutely certain) Craig Barrett who took over after Grove, had his own version of it. Mike Magee gives a description here (warning, not for the faint of heart):

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