Sunday, November 26, 2006

Powerpoint is not evil. You are. Yes, you.

A wonderful coworker of mine (if she gives me permission, I'll edit this and name her) pointed me to a good blog post about Edward Tufte, the evils of Powerpoint, information design, the ability of well-designed misinformation to intentionally mislead, and of badly designed information to unintentionally mislead. That post in turn links to another one that talks about how Powerpoint is now being taught in schools.

As usual, the angle is that the "cognitive style of Powerpoint" -- bullet points, illustrations, short headlines, outlined organizational style presentations -- is sapping our kids' attention spans and their ability to put together long, complex essays and thought pieces.

I like much of what Tufte has to say in the same way that I like much of what Freud has to say. It is interesting at the level of "I hadn't thought of things in that manner," but I think their exact prescriptions need to be taken with food and not before operating heavy machinery. Good stuff at a macro level, but not necessarily useful when building a garage.

Do I think that Powerpoint can lead to lazy thinking? Yes. But so can typewriters that don't let you erase easily.

The greatest single gift God ever gave my writing was the "Backspace" key. In the two years at college I had before I owned my own PC, when my writing tool was an electric typewriter that required weird-o correcting tape that sometimes (read: almost never) worked, my efforts at editing were limited to what I bloody-well-felt-like based on my time available, energy level and sobriety. I did a first draft by hand, on yellow legal pads, and then did as good a job as possible on the typewriter. If I had a brilliant idea on how to change the first paragraph, but was 2/3 of the way down the piece... 9 times out of 10 my response was, "Screw it."

So. Powerpoint. Children. Thinking. The medium is the message. Right...

When I was in college, I typed around 60 words-per-minute. That was after having taken one 10 week high-school typing course. Now, 20-odd years later, I type around 105 wpm. And the college kids I know beat me most days. My point? Easy backspace don't mean bad typing. It means more typing. Which means faster typing. Which means more writing, more editing, more thinking, more chances to say, "Hmmm... I think that paragraph would go better... there... and I think I'll move stuff around so that the conclusion is actually the intro, and we'll add two more examples..." etc. etc. You get the point.

Now... Does the backspace key guarantee that I'll do that? Of course not. But it makes it more bloody likely than it did when I had to use weird-o correcting tape.

With Powerpoint, you are given a number of templates. Nice. We love templates! Or, let me be clear. YOU love templates. I hate them. Because they are often so off-brand for what I have to do in my day job that my crew needs to spend many hours un-templatizing all kinds of crap in Powerpoint, Word, etc. so that it looks like what we (Marketing Gods) need it to look like rather than what Mr. Microsoft and you default it to look like. Not your fault. Not their fault. It has to look like something when it comes out of the barn, right?

What does Tufte and the crew want? For Powerpoint to default to a blank page? We call that a "word processor." Here's the thing... you can create presentation slides in MS Word. You can create them in Excel. You can create them in Photoshop or Quark or Illustrator. It's a pain, but you can do it. But, in the past, people used to create these funky overhead transparencies and, before that, things called "slides" that had some similar characteristics.

Bullets. A few bits of text per slide. A couple images. Short headlines. Outline organization.

It's not like Microsoft decided, "We're going to create a nation of drooling, 3-bullet point mesmerized dummies." The format has been around for 50+ years. Powerpoint is just a tool that makes it fast.

  • If you want to create something [fast] with reams of text, use Word.

  • If you want to create something [fast] with mainly images, use Photoshop

  • If you want to create something [fast] with mainly graphs and charts, use Excel

If you want to do a bunch of all those things, Alt-Tab between your favorite applications.

And if you want to learn how to think like a grown-up, learn how to use a couple hundred different tools, and how to solve a couple thousand different types of problems, and stop whining that a hammer doesn't screw in light bulbs very well.

When I was a junior in high-school, my English teacher, Ms. B_____, took us through the whole sha-bang-a-bang for researching and writing a major paper. The research, the outline, the 3x5 cards, the notes, the first draft, the revised draft, the final, the bibliography, etc. etc. We spent 8 weeks getting that process down pat. Then we did 5 more papers just like that... except we didn't actually write the papers. We did every single part, except the drafts; no first, revised or final. She knew we could write; we were an AP writing class. We wrote essays in class and for our exams. But for our major papers, she knew it was more important that we spend the time learning and practicing the process than the product. She taught us how to do it, not just to do it. Best and hardest writing class I ever had.

You want kids to use Powerpoint the "right" way? The way it was intended? To convey information in bite-size, read-able at a distance chunks in a Holiday Inn ballroom over rubber chicken? Then leave it as-is. If you want them to use Powerpoint as a creative tool, make 'em:

  • Design a new template from scratch

  • Prepare a presentation that has nothing to do with the usual "condensed info / book-report" format kinda thing; for example, present a short story or a poem or a music video using Powerpoint

  • Use Powerpoint as the vehicle for a game like hangman or a puzzle of some kind

  • Use it to create seating charts, flowcharts, planning charts or other non-verbal materials

  • Have a duel with two (or more) computers hooked up to projectors where the kids have to user Powerpoint to create reactions to what the last team did

  • Use Powerpoint and a projector and as many pages as you want/need like a wipe-board

  • Copy-and-paste text and images from appropriate Web pages to Powerpoint slides and add speaker's notes and text to help annotate Web adventures as you navigate research projects on the Web. Save the Powerpoint presentations along with URL links as records of your travels

You see, Powerpoint is good for pretty quickly putting basic, kinda crappy looking (i.e., not heavily formatted) text and images up on a screen in short order. It's "sketchy" as opposed to "painty" or "write-y."

Don't give kids a hammer, show 'em how to pound nails, and then complain when all they can do with it is pound nails. Hammers are good. Nails are good. You just need to use them in combination with saws and glue and yer friggin' imagination to build all kinds of projects.

Nothin' wrong with Powerpoint. We all just need to think about all our tools a bit more widely. Especially when we're putting them into the hands of kids.

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