Technology in the Classroom: PowerPoint Alternatives

angel bullet
creates a format that

  • encourages a hierarchy of bulleted notes
  • is in a specific predetermined sequential order
  • cannot respond to student inquiries

angel bullet
helps the presenter remember their notes

* while often doing great harm to the presentation

angel bullet
encourages students to

* remember key points
* let the professor decide which points should be “key”
* give the correct “answer” as decided by the professor

angel bullet
engourages the use of ridiculous icons that distract the audience

angel bullet
is trapped in linear “slideshow” mode, under-utilizing the possibilities of digital presentation

Edward Tufte has written extensively on the evils of PowerPoint and its effects on our communication and cognition. He begins a Wired magazine article with the catchy phrase, “Power corrupts: PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” Tufte specifically addresses the dangers of PowerPoint in teaching:

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.

Just for fun, check out Peter Norvig’s great PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg address that illustrates these points.

Of course, PowerPoint has many uses, and while it may have a tendency towards low-resolution, non-interactive, unilinear, information-poor presentations, the real outcome is up to the user. (I have not seen it, but apparently David Byrne has elevated PowerPoint to an art form.)

Personally, I have found the possibilities for technology in the classroom to be tremendous, but I have always found PowerPoint very limiting. Here I would like to briefly share with you a PowerPoint alternative, and hopefully start a discussion where we can share ideas for other PowerPoint alternatives as well as better uses of PowerPoint itself.

As an alternative to PowerPoint, I build a very simple website for each day of class using Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver is almost as easy as simple to use as PowerPoint, but allows for almost unlimited flexibility.

Here is a screenshot of how my presentations look:


While very simple, the key advantage this layout gives me is the menu on the left side. The menu has links to pictures, short video clips, music, outside webpages, and explanatory pages. This frees me from a total linear presentation, allowing me to jump around through my material to respond to student inquiries. This allows me to run class more like an engaging conversation rather than a dragging lecture.

A Brief Tutorial

I cannot possibly cover all the ways to use Dreamweaver. If you have never used it before, there are some great tutorials here.

To begin, create a folder for your lecture. I name mine by the date, starting with the year so that they end up in order when I sort them by name (e.g. “060411Art” was the name of the folder for today’s lecture on art.) As you create your content, make sure that you keep all of the files you are using in this folder. When you are ready to go to class you will just copy this folder onto a flash drive and take it with you. Any images or video files need to be in the folder or they will not be accessible during your lecture. (Alternatively, you could load your files onto a server and access them via internet, but then you have to be concerned about connection speeds, etc.).

The first file you will create is the frameset (full tutorial here). The frameset defines the layout of your presentation. I like to have a “menu” frame and a “content” frame. You only need to create the frameset once. After that you will be able to just copy and paste it into any new lecture folder you create. I call my frameset “start.htm” because that is what I need to click on to start the lecture.

I make the left frame just wide enough for a menu and no bigger. Along with links, I can also embed sound clips and music in this menu as well, making them accessible at all times. I like to have a song to play while people are coming in that somehow relates to the day’s material, as well as other sound clips or songs that are useful to illustrate points during the lecture.

You can also create a third frame at the top for additional links. If you use Firefox or Opera, you can also preload multiple tabs with useful information so you can jump instantly to pertinent information as it is brought up in class. You might also keep a few tabs loaded with Google, Wikipedia, Google Scholar, and other useful reference sites that can help you respond to student enquiries and give them a sense of the exciting quest learning can be.

Instead of PowerPoint “slides,” you now create simple webpages. Your options are almost unlimited here, so I can’t possibly cover all of them. Personally, I like to keep text and bullet point pages to a minimum, while making extensive use of audio and visual material. The possibilities are limited only by the capabilities of the browser you are using, and in that sense, they are not only enormous (and far greater than PowerPoint), they are also growing quickly.

If a multi-linear presentation sounds too chaotic (and it can be), you can use the left menu as a rough outline and still proceed through your lecture in a linear fashion, but always with the option of jumping forwards, backwards, or sideways as needed. If you choose a linear presentation, the left menu serves the additional function of showing the students where they have been and where they are going during the lecture.

I’m sure this is too incomplete to set you off and running with Dreamweaver, but I hope it is enough to spark a conversation on PowerPoint alternatives. I suspect there are many readers of this blog who have come up with some great ideas for PowerPoint alternatives as well as alternative uses for PowerPoint. If you have any great ideas, please share!

21 thoughts on “Technology in the Classroom: PowerPoint Alternatives

  1. Just in defense of powerpoint (and the powerpoint Gettysburg address made me laugh till I cried when I first saw it), it does force you to decide what your point is, which I think is a great exercise. Ideally, it does not allow hand-waving to disguise the absence of orderly exposition. If something doesn’t lend itself to powerpoint (and many things do not), I have found it useful to think through WHY — what am I trying to say if I can’t put it into bullet points? Sometimes it turns out I am trying to say something far too empyrean and cool for the clay feets of powerpoint. Sometimes it turns out I’ve got very little of substance to offer on a particular topic, and that’s why I can’t generate bullet points. I will confess I have, more than once, found that a less than obvious distinction (like the fine line between clever and stupid: Power point has sometimes helped me find it).

  2. I think the main problems with Powerpoint are 1) the user, and 2) the ugly templates. 1, being generally not accustomed to design or rushed for time, tends to lean on 2. I guess we can blame Bill Gates’ democratising philosophy, combined with The Company’s lack of effort on the pretty design front. Apple is just as bad here mind you, with all those 3D pie charts made of wood and perspex.

    But it is certainly possible to do some of the stuff Mike is doing with html, in Powerpoint – you can’t make frames, but you can make a template that has a side menu on every slide, with links to every other slide, or to video or the web (although these will typically boot up another piece of software). You can also plot all sorts of non-linear routes through your slide shows, and get as messy as you want.

    Personally I go for extremely basic. White background black text, and lots of pics – each on its own slide (sometimes 2 per slide). Where I work we have Courseware where I upload PDFs of the powerpoint slides for the students to print out and use in class or after the lecture. If you put 3 slides per page powerpoint puts handy note taking lines next to the slides – this stops the little buggers writing down the bullet points instead of listening, but allows them to scribble their own thoughts.

    This kind of content delivery creates its own problems and issues, but I think it is a bit better than the old days of handwritten and faded transparencies, endless crappy handouts, and the dead time at the end of every transparency as the lecturer waited for the slow note takers to write everything down. Back then a non-linear lecture meant the lecturer had dropped his notes on the way to class, shuffling the order of everything!

  3. Great. Next week I’m teaching about powerpoint in my multimedia ethnography class, so this is perfect timing!

    Personally, I think one of the problems is hardware, not software. My iBook doesn’t support dual displays – each with a different view, but newer models do. This allows you to use the features of both Powerpoint and Keynote that provide the presenter with notes, but hide them from the presentation. Using this, all your bullet points can be read by you, but your presentation can be slimmed down to a simple image that captures your point, or serves as a mental placeholder for the ideas you are presenting. Choosing such images well takes much more time and work than putting up bullet points, but I find it works very well. Sometimes a little text is necessary, but I keep it to a minimum. And since my iBook doesn’t support dual displays, I print out my lecture notes and simply mark on the paper where to switch slides.

    Here is one example of a decent powerpoint presentation – in that it is engaging and illustrative. (It is about Web 2.0 stuff.)

  4. I dunno, Tim, I *like* crappy handouts.

    For me the weird part of Powerpoint is the way it turns presenters into spectators of their own presentations. Up the next slide comes on the screen and oh look, let’s all see what it says. The technology saps the story-telling connection between presenter and audience — a similar point to the observations above about what it does to discussion with students. The “presentation” is pre-made, canned, made up outside the moment of *actual* presentation.

  5. I admit crappy handouts have an antedeluvian charm. But the problems of presenters being spectators and lack of connection/pre-canned lectures are not unique to powerpoint.

  6. Hello Mike,
    Dreamweaver is a kind of low power interactive site builder for internect based access to information.

    Access to information along the lines Dreamweaver points at is what I think the technical community calls ‘visualization’. That just means the tools take on picture like properties. More powerful than Dreamweaver are the games tools available for constructing classroom material.

    They can be programmed to follow physics and therefore to teach students how to understand using pictures in a deeper level.

    Power Point puts a premium on the word over the image. So does Dreamweaver. The forces in society like cellphones that take pictures indicate that mobility, geographic information and the ability to attach information to a location are all important learning and development issues coming up for online teaching.

    Students can go into the world in field trips that teach thinking about the world in a way that PowerPoint can’t do. That’s why I think PowerPoint is limited, and limiting.
    Doyle Saylor

  7. The humor of the bouncing angelic smiley faces is lost on my Taiwanese students, for whom such graphics are commonplace.


  8. As a student, the problem I have with powerpoint is that it is always oriented to telling the student what is important. I think this is an ordinary conception of what teachers are doing and one that I would like to see broken down. For me the only person that can decide what is important is the learner. All the teacher can do is try to lead the learner in the direction the learner needs to go and be “like a lighthouse that says there are rocks over here, steer clear” (Campbell). If this is the role of the teacher, then there would be nothing more important than flexibility and non-linear techniques. For me, powerpoint in all manifestations I have seen it is effectively telling the student (me) to obey the professor, agree with what s/he says is important, don´t ask questions, and memorize what is on the slides because it will be on an exam. Once again for me, that is not learning… but the furthest thing from it (Powerpoint may be effective for salesmen and business people who are selling a product, but I hope that selling a product is not synonymous with teaching/learning!). I beg that this type of dialogue about different approaches continues and delves deep into what exactly teachers and students think they are doing when they go about teaching and learning.

  9. This is an excellent tutorial. From personal experience as his student, Dr. Wesch has displayed a remarkable way of using hypertext to arrange his lectures in an engaging way, embedding videos and graphics to enrich the topic.

    These things can be done just as well in Powerpoint, but we lose openness. Not everyone can just run a Powerpoint document, if they don’t have the proper software, which costs money. HTML/CSS documents can be remarkably formatted and can be opened with the free Firefox web browser. If Dr. Wesch so desires, he can upload the page to the internet for all to see, not only his students.

    Another benefit to using XML or HTML is that it is searchable by google and other such technologies, opening up the ability for researchers to access the presentation in a less linear fashion. This multi-linearity is something very flexible that Powerpoint does not do well, but is necessary if one wishes to keep the visual aid tailored to the flow of discussion.

    It wouldn’t be difficult to add a blog to this format, and create a page for each lecture with its own comment section for clarification and discussion.

  10. Doyle,
    Using game tools sounds like a great idea. I had never considered it but I can begin to imagine some interesting possibilities. Do you have any particular suggestions of which tools we might explore, or examples of how they have been used in the classroom as well as online?

    Your mentioning of online teaching reminds me that I was just reading Buckminster Fuller’s 1962 publication, “Education Automation.” There he describes TVs with a special “beaming system” that would allow programming to be sent directly to each particular TV and for each TV to send information back. As he elaborates, “The child will be able to call up any kind of information he wants about any subject and get his latest authoritative TV documentary.” Fuller predicted that education would eventually primarily be through these devices, and that university faculty would stop teaching and start producing well-polished visual documentaries to broadcast to these special two-way TVs. He thought this would all happen within a decade. 44 years later, faculty meetings everywhere seem to be buzzing with trepidation …

  11. Hey Mike here is what I was referring to:
    February 28, 2006
    Scientist at Work | Andrew Hamilton
    A Thrill Ride to ‘the Other Side of Infinity’

    That meant not only creating a visual representation of Einstein’s work, but also in a real sense creating from scratch a world that cannot be known. “When I started this, I had no idea what would emerge from the equations,” Mr. Hamilton said. Part of the thrill was the exploration. The computer would go where the human mind by itself could not.

    Now, he says, the connection of gamer gear and science is the frontier. The visualization software that allows players to live and die in cyberworlds like Call of Duty 2, he said, is destined to be the future chalkboard of science.

    Hard science is meanwhile galloping ahead just as fast and needs game technology as a tool if students are to master all that must be learned and if members of the public are to glimpse the basics of high-concept science at all.

    I’ve thought about this as a good project to provide teachers with much more powerful teaching tools. For example massive collaborations of students against problems that only teams can do.

    And so,

  12. Sigh…
    Back to the old chestnut of how bad powerpoint is (and to be fair I really don’t like using it)…but over the last semester I have cultivated some degree of competence. For me powerpoint is no better than an index to the points I am making…like Tim I ‘go for extremely basic’ although in a rather fetching pale violet with black font!

    The main problem for me is that I am expected (both by university/college and by students) to use some kind of technology to enhance learning and teaching. The flip side being that I cannot do it without! This expectation on behalf of the college/university is mediated by the installation of projectors and interactive whiteboards in every teaching room that have replaced the old overhead projectors – and the adoption of Moodle or Blackboard VLEs on which all teaching materials should be made readily available. It is inevitable that in this climate students will expect to be spoonfed information.

    My own very small act of defiance is to make the powerpoint slides simple to the point of uselessness. Students missing lectures and picking my slides up from the VLE will not have an enlightening experience.

  13. Denise Carter writes,
    My own very small act of defiance is to make the powerpoint slides simple to the point of uselessness. Students missing lectures and picking my slides up from the VLE will not have an enlightening experience.

    In my world that’s called one-to-many distribution of information. I think you are remarking on how the student must interact or ‘learn’ the information on their own in some way.

    For the most part I think that reflects some degree of practicality on your part and yet I prefer a different vision of teaching.

    What I would like to see from teachers are massive collaborative environments they create to teach. Primarily to better explore what interactivity means. The class room is a model of how difficult it is for one person to reach and teach x number of persons. A class size of 20 seems a blessing. Individual attention to a student a prize usually of wealthy districts.

    Most teaching materials really don’t have a way to ‘interact’ in a specific engineered understanding of the student’s cognitive style. That’s the quality of individual attention interactivity relates to. Kids with learning disabilities to some degree get special support from teachers and adaptive equipment built to accommodate ‘disability’ of cognitive styles. But most students have to learn a kind of passivity about learning that the teacher above refers to as spoon feeding.

    I think we all know that a human being really is social and passivity crushes those skills. I think computing tools built around collaboration would have social values we can’t impart in the current regime of learning. Essentially I think supporting the good will and desire of Denise and others like her.
    Doyle Saylor

  14. Doyle Saylor says ‘I think we all know that a human being really is social and passivity crushes those skills’ – yes of course – it is student passivity I am railing against, rather than powerpoint itself – the lack of student ability to ‘process’ information in a critical and analytical style, and sometimes my own seeming lack of ability to kindle/nurture this skill through my teaching.

    Yet it is not only the students who are passive: this discussion has prompted me to revisit how Powerpoint constrains both myself and my students into passivity, particularly in large group teaching. We must cover the points in order, tick the boxes and file it away, mission accomplished, now the students know everything there is to know about ethnography/gift exchange/development etc. – and oh dear yes – I am sometimes (see Colin Danby) that lecturer who looks blankly at the next slide wondering what is written on it and why!

    No longer!!

    While still a teaching assistant I attended a seminar by Zygmunt Bauman, who, armed with a small piece of paper with no more than twenty words written in pencil on it held me spellbound for over an hour. That is what I aspire to. The question is how?

  15. When students do presentations in my classes, sometimes they’ll put together a PowerPoint presentation to liven things up. They then proceed to read from their slides — their very text-heavy slides. And only from their slides — they rarely have anything to add to what they’ve put on their slides. I would have chalked it up to inexperience — and once upon a time I thought I could correct such inexperience with a few well-thought instructive words on the use of presentation software — except that when I see other professors and scholars doing presentations, they do exactly the same thing. The only thing worse is when they read from the slides and hand the slides out in printed form — at least 2 of the information sources (speech, slides, handouts) are redundant.

    Whose fault is that? Is it PowerPoint’s, which makes it so easy to whip up a boring presentation? Is it students and scholars who don’t know how to use PowerPoint well? Or might it be that PowerPoint doesn’t adapt itself well to humanities/social scientific presentations? I can see PowerPoint being great if I’m reporting on my fieldwork or an archaeological site or doing a visual anthropological analysis of popular culture, but if I’m trying to explain social hierarchy, or religion, or deconstruction? Unless I have ready access to an archive of specialized imagery, what am I putting on the slides? Notes? I don’t use PowerPoint much because in most instances it would simply reproduce the stuff I already write on the board — and writing it on the board gives me the option of being flexible about the order I address topics in, etc. The only exception is when I have a large amount of visual information to get across — say for a section on racial stereotypes, or visual art. In effect, PowerPoint is my digital slide carousel — not an outliner, note-sharing program, or substitute teacher.

    As someone said, PowerPoint is probably very effective for its primary purpose: selling stuff (whether products, business plans, or investment strategies). If you see teaching as selling a product, you probably have more luck with it than I do. I tend to belong more to the teaching-as-seduction school of thought, and so I’m not much more likely to find PowerPoint useful in my classes than I am to find it useful on, say, a first date.

  16. I think many people use PP poorly because they use it first as an outliner and only secondarily as a presentation tool. This is what I was trying to say in my earlier comment.

    Outlining tools can be helpful in planning a presentation, but they should not be the presentation itself. Also, there are much better outlining tools out there than PP. If you are a Mac user I recommend Omni Outliner which is very powerful. But after you have created an outline of your presentation, you should put the outline to the side and think about how to best presnt your work. Somtimes words will do just fine without any illustrations, sometimes illustrations can be helpful and PP isn’t a bad way to show illustrations. Just don’t use it as an outliner.

  17. Doyle,
    Over the summer, I am embarking on a project that will experiment with encorporating games into learning.
    There are two fantastic advantages to using games as teaching tools. First, students associate games with enjoyment which means that they will [u]want[/u] to participate in the activity.
    Second, games can create a environment where students actively seek knowledge and immediately apply that knowledge to a task.
    Advancement in technology is making computer and video game creation more accessible to teachers and students. If you are interested, check out Game Maker and RPG Maker XP.
    If anyone knows of other resources, please post them!

  18. Denise: If they’ll give you a place on the university web server, you can use basic web pages to put up tons of stuff — syllabus, handouts, pictures, maps, and so forth — all interlinked in whatever way you want. You don’t even need the VLE (which is another whole topic). If you’re as talented as Mike you can do really nice web pages. The key distinction Mike makes, and which I support, is between having lots of stuff available to you that you can click back and forth between depending on how the class goes, and having a series of slides that impose a particular progression.

    My school has the projectors and I’m an enthusiastic user e.g.
    The visual power of the projector, and the ability of web pages to make a lot of stuff available to students in an orderly way, are wonderful things. The objection to powerpoint, and I think this is Tufte’s point too, is that it is about the dumbest way possible to use this lovely new technology.

  19. Powerpoint is old technology. It was whipped up by engineers who wanted to communicate with marketers, taking advantage of mid-late 1990s projector technology to do away with the old tripartite lecture material system of slide carousel, overhead transparencies, and notes. Powerpoint concatenates all 3 of these into one. But it was designed with the linear and non-interactive ‘lecturing’ style of presentation practice in mind. As a simple way of projecting text and images it works tolerably well – although as I have said the templates and other formatting problems, encourage bad design (by which I mean the ability to communicate visually in an elegant way). You also get just as many bad presenters making bad presentations with Powerpoint as you used to get with slides and overheads. People read out their slides, just like some people read out their lecture notes. I have seen some of the best anthropological minds give some of the most appalling lectures. Sidney Mintz gave a fascinating social history of Coke but nearly put me to sleep (he put his head down and read a paper). I attended a workshop with Greg Dening on ‘Performance’ in which he gave the dullest, lacklustre speech about the importance of considering alternative modes of academic delivery (his own ‘performance’ was, again, to read out notes). Marylin Strathern appears to tie herself in verbal knots, while conveying incredible ideas. These guys are not good presenters, but they are great teachers – probably because lecturing is a small component of their teaching.

    As many of the comments here have noted, the linear non-interactive style of Lecture presentations is not necessarily the best way to teach and learn. And if you want to challenge that mode then Powerpoint is not your tool. Like the famous names I have named, I think it is unlikely that many of us use Powerpoint and Lecturing as our sole teachng mode – my first year students attend small group tutorials, watch videos, participate in online discussions (their participation in these is graded), and other activities. My graduate classes involve all manner of interactive learning, and this year one of their assignments is to contruct a collaborative wiki. As others have pointed out there are new avenues for different kinds of teaching now, and people will start to use them as teaching culture changes. We are slowly moving away from didactic lecturing. But I fully expect to see really really bad teaching games, and ugly interactive, non linear lectures, and unfathomable collaborative efforts in the near future. Blaming your tools is not particularly productive, but I suppose it is a start to thinking about better teaching practice.

  20. The fault, dear Brutus, in not our technology but in ourselves.

    Before computerised tools like Powerpoint, presention aids such as hand-drawn flipcharts and slides were even more bullet-dominated and sequential.

    Whether the presenter controls what points are “key” is a matter of power relationships, not of presentation technology. If you’re presenting to a company’s senior management and they think you’ve got it wrong or strongly dislike the implications of what you’re saying, you lose control PDQ.

    Powerpoint has at least made it a lot easier to copy graphs and pictures from other computerised tools. So when used well, Powerpoint enables more people to produce more informative and attractive presentations. It’s not Powerpoint’s fault that some people use it badly and get carried away with “cool” effects.

    Dreamweaver is a web page editor, and it’s just as possible to produce bullet lists in web pages. And Dreamweaver makes it just as easy to get carried away with “cool” effects – look at the vast numbers of tacky web pages.

    The web page style of presentation does have 1 advantage – you can include a main menu that makes it easier to move flexibly around the content. But if Microsoft were to include a menu feature in Powerpoint, then Powerpoint would be clearly superior because it’s far easier to use – it requires no knowledge of HTML and CSS and can import data from e.g. spreadsheets.

Comments are closed.