What PowerPoint SHOULD Be…

My rambling comment over at Doug Johnson’s Blue Skunk Blog convinced me that it’s time to commit my wild ideas about the future of PowerPoint to paper.  Well, to text, anyway… 

Ever since I read Edward Tufte’s Wired 2003 article on the evils of PowerPoint, I’ve been thinking about how I would direct the development of this over-used piece of software if I were the chief mucky-muck in Redmond.  That’s almost three years’ worth of thinking.  In that time, I’ve thought a lot about why so many PowerPoint-supported presentations and classes are so bad, how the tool itself is largely to blame for this due to fundamental flaws in its DNA, and how it could evolve into something better.

 Marshall McLuhan told us that the medium is the message.  If that’s the case, then here’s PowerPoint’s message:

I know everything about this stuff.  You know nothing.  I will lead you on a path from knowing nothing to knowing something.  There will be no deviating from that path.  Please don’t try to lead or otherwise contribute to this journey.  Just sit back and enjoy the scenery.

It’s the technological embodiment of Paolo Freire’s “banking education.”  As teachers, we generally don’t run our classrooms this way any more (I hope) and I haven’t seen a lot of business meetings that operate under these assumptions, either.  We need a better tool or PowerPoint itself needs to “grow up.”  Here are my ideas:

  1. Better branching options:  Many presentations/classes begin with a general question or two designed to help the speaker understand the background, interests, and/or biases of the audience.  But when the speaker asks, “How many of you are math teachers?” and 80% of the room raises their hands, can she click a button on her title slide to go to the “Math teacher” version of her PowerPoint?  Yes, I know this is possible to set this up in PowerPoint, but it sure isn’t easy.  The default mode of operation supports the presentation of information in a strictly linear fashion.  Hypertext and the web have expanded our view beyond the traditional linear narrative that starts on page one and ends on page 308 but PowerPoint is still just a “stack of slides” (note the metaphor and the paradigm that it suggests).  What if instead of a “stack” the slides could be arranged in an Inspiration-type mind map and during the presentation, based on the audience’s feedback, the presenter/teacher could click on the top, bottom, left, or right side of a slide to support the natural movement of the conversation to a related topic?
  2. Interactive objects:  You can put so many objects on a PowerPoint slide – text, graphs, images, movies, sounds – but all of them “push” information out to the audience.  We need a whole set of tools for accepting information coming in the other direction.  A few years ago I spent hours trying to figure out a way to embed a text box on a slide so I could type ideas from the audience into that box without leaving my presentation, an effort that ended in failure.  And text boxes are just the beginning: I want some kind of tally mechanism to support voting, a way to drag list items into different orders, and dynamic, drag-able graphic organizers, to start.  When the presentation ends, I want to be prompted to take that “instance” of the presentation – with all of the audience’s ideas, questions, and comments embedded – and distribute it as a separate copy of the file while maintaining the original version unaltered on my hard drive and ready for the next go-around with a new group. 
  3. Outside Information Sources:  Let’s assume that there are things going on in the world that the presenter doesn’t yet know about but he or she is brave enough to let them become a part of the conversation.  I’m talking about RSS feeds and other dynamic data pulled into a PowerPoint presentation on the fly.  A slide stack that explains the structure and operation of the U.S. Congress is nice.  What happens when it ends with RSS feeds from opencongress.org showing what’s happening in congress right now?  Now that’s authentic learning.

I’m thinking about the PowerPoints that I saw today at the LHRIC TechExpo.  The presenters spent an awful lot of time outside of PowerPoint looking at things on the web and soliciting (and sometimes recording) audience input.  Many presentations are like that these days.  What does that tell you, Microsoft?   

Finally, getting back to education: if so many teachers want SmartBoards, maybe it’s not the board itself but rather the “message” of Smart Notebook that’s exciting them: “I’ve put some things together for us to explore.  Let’s get your ideas up here, too, and see what we can make of it all.” 

Personally, I’ll take “smart” over “power” any day…

One thought on “What PowerPoint SHOULD Be…

  1. Hey Mike,
    Great to see your insightful blog and to hear from you!
    I think you are right on the money with the insights about powerpoint, the tool needs to be used as a starting point for dialogue and exploration when we have the opportunity to learn together.
    Many times as I progress in a session I freely skip over slides because they no longer fit in with the direction our session has evolved. But I seldom see other people do this.
    I also try not to “over text” slides- but sometimes will put an extended quote that people can read while I lead off the discussion.
    And the ease with which we can now insert so many media types into it and yet people seldom seem to do this either.
    I don’t mean just swirling transitions and bouncing letters… but audio, video clips and links to online resources– to demonstrate primary resources and also introduce new technology uses …

    You can be sure I will be back to visit often and we will mention your blog on Podcast for Teachers soon.
    As you told us you are a regular listener to our popular free weekly teacher professional development podcast that has been in production for a year and a half from Fordham University!

    The PFT website is

    our blog is

    Folks will find all sorts of free resources, interviews, curriculum ideas, equipment and software reviews… along with show notes for each episode and a complete archive of 79 episodes !!!

    the podcast feed for itunes and other podcatchers is

    Mike, can you believe we have had over 1.7 million listeners since summer of 2005? Educators are surely using technology to meet their lifelong learning needs and it is people like you and your colleagues who are helping them school by school to make that reach.

    Thanks again for your great work on your blog and for keeping touch 🙂

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