Friday, March 18, 2005


An economy of Powerpoint?

I was reading the blogs on blogs on blogs regarding Atkinson and Mayer's work on reducing ppt overload (see here). My first reaction was that complaining about PowerPoint is like the complaining about lecturing that goes on by adherents of "active learning" methods, whereby the old-fashioned, outmoded, boring, tedious lecture must go the way of the Dodo bird or Western civilization will come to an end.

I usually find such arguments tedious. Lecturing goes on (and on and on) because it is an economical way for a single person to deliver a lot of stuff to a bunch of people. Active learning is only done in small measures in performance critical roles, because it is expensive (see this argument). In other words, active learning techniques are not used more often, because the marginal benefit of the activity (over lecturing ) does not usually exceed its marginal cost.

With this as background, I thought the Atkinson and Mayer's work was going to call for some complete overhaul of ppt and presentations. After all, we use Powerpoint because it is convenient and conveys a bunch of stuff fairly quickly; however, a closer read of the article gives a number of sensible suggestions for
  1. Clear headlines
  2. Digestible bites
  3. Offslide elaboration
  4. Visuals & words
  5. Removal of unneeded elements

In many cases, these steps can be taken without burdening the preparation or presentation process a bit. Elaborate visuals (number 4) can add marginally to the preparation time, but a well chosen schematic, block diagram, or picture can often benefit a presentation enough to make the added prep time worthwhile.

So I retract my first impression, but it is important to understand that Powerpoint is used as often as it is, because it is an economic alternative to other modes of presentation. Improving presentations is a laudable goal, but efficiency dictates that we balance the economy of Powerpoint in so doing.

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