Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Technology in the classroom: the subliminal effects of snazzy presentations

Every time my students present their end-of-semester projects, I'm confronted with the growing discrepancy between my rather bare bones Power Points and their much snazzier slides. My slides mainly organize content into a linear hierarchy of bullet points. Some of them also include illustrative pictures or diagrams, or links to videos and websites. But that's it. I use a simple black font on a white background, without special formatting, fades, or other effects, and no recurring icons like that doodling marker that accompanies so many K12 education presentations--including those of my students.

I eschew these special effects and formats not just because I can't be bothered to learn them, but because I find, at best, that they add little to the educational value of presentations, and, at worst, that they actually distract viewers away from content. As Dan Willingham has pointed out in Why Students Don't Like School, stuff that's intended to be attention-getting is often distracting instead.

One thought that distracted me as I viewed my students' presentations was whether these ever snazzier effects are subliminally affecting how engaging students think a presentation is--and how much educational value they think they've gotten out of it. Perhaps a presentation that is in fact more educationally engaging precisely because it lacks distracting special effects still comes across as less so.

This raises two profound philosophical questions.

1. Is actually learning more a good thing if the learners think they learned less?

2. What does this entail for (my) teaching ratings?

The conflation of exciting content and exciting presentation style is pervasive in education. Posters must be glittery and colorful, presenters must be dynamic and interactive, and classrooms must maximize the latest technology. The latest presentation technology--which many of my students were required to learn use this year in other education classes--is Prezi.

As Prezi's publicity explains:

With slides, your audience is forced to think inside the box, losing the big picture of your presentation. Prezi changes all that by giving you the ability to create zooming presentations, zooming out to see the big picture of how your ideas are related, and zooming into the details.
Prezi is also dizzying in all those zooms, as well as aggressively non-linear in its layout. Viewers can easily forget where they are in the linear or hierarchic progression of ideas (assuming there even is one).

People forget that the best presentation style is that which enhances rather than distracts away from content. Sometimes mastering content (and even being creative with it) means thinking inside the box. And a lot of content is chronologically or logically linear, doesn't translate into visual representations, and is best expressed in words or symbols arranged linearly on a simple, static, black on white background.


Auntie Ann said...

This goes back to your last post too. Lots of videos are being made that are flashy with high production values, but which offer up little information. The more I watch of the documentary channels on TV, the more I see of this.

I hate Prezi. And I even hate everything flying in and out on a PowerPoint. It is often distracting and pointless, and time consuming for the author. Though I'm not a teacher, I would think one would want their students spending more time on content than on atmospherics. Even at work, when I have to help on a powerpoint, I'm always trying to discourage the flash in my coworkers presentations. Get to the point!

The boy (6th grade) had one academic project at summer camp this summer and he was encouraged to use Prezi. (He opted for PowerPoint.) That's a bad omen for the school year (he was at his school's camp.) I'm thinking they will be pushing it in the coming year...and he's going to hate it!

When classrooms and assignments are geared towards flash and dash, because the teachers think it is more engaging, why don't they ever stop to think about the handful of kids who are completely turned off by it? Why don't they get to do things in a manner that engages *them*? How hard is it to give an option for a more-academic and less artistic presentation or product?

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. There are both cognitive downsides and efficiency downsides to these ever-escalating presentation options. Most students and most teachers (heck, most of everybody) do not have the skills to use these techniques effectively.

lgm said...

Considering that many students are VSL, not auditory linear sequential, I think there is a place for multimedia presentations and teaching. I personally vastly prefer a podcast to an auditory l-s lecture when it comes to science, however we all know learning increases when the student is involved as more than a receiver of a transmission.

Case in point -- my district bought a cheapo AMSCO chem text that is for 'all learners'. Guess, what, no visuals at all in the entire book. District doesn't issue the book any longer as they claim students won't read it anyway. Kiddo came home from class unable to build a molecule of SiO4, but supposedly had been taught its shape and was supposed to have angles memorized from the auditory-sequential presentation in class. That lesson needed to be translated to reality via 3D animation or a model..ie a visual .... to be effective.

Math is the same way. We own Dolciani's so our children do not get shorted with the verbal only presentation from school. There are visual explanations dating from preRoman times that are effective and take much less time to understand that an auditory-sequential lecture.

Anonymous said...

The problem, lgm, is not visual presenetations; they can be great and are often necessary (chemistry is one good example). The problem is these presentation software packages that add needless visual clutter to the basic ideas that do benefit from visual representations.

lgm said...

what is clutter to some may be interest to others. The same principle is used in classrooms here in the local district's elementary. There are classrooms where every inch of wall space is packed with info and art, others are just bare walls and a chalkboard. Some kids need the latter, others find that bare walls & a chalkboard combined with a bare bones auditory-sequential lecture is mind numbing. Eye of the beholder..what's a problem for some is not for others.tonentsA

Katharine Beals said...

I'd like to draw a distinction between:

1. visuals that are distracting vs. visuals that are informative and on topic (the latter includes graphs and bar diagrams in math, and good science diagrams and videos like those I discuss in my previous post.
2. the mere impression that something is engaging vs. true engagement and learning

I suspect that non-informative distractions are distracting to everyone, and that everyone benefits from visual representations *when they are actually informative and on topic*.

Finally, I'm pretty sure that some content (e.g. of the highly linear, abstract, non-geometric variety) does not lend itself to visual representation, unless we're talking about highly schematic diagrams with lots of verbal or symbolic labels.

lgm said...

>>I suspect that non-informative distractions are distracting to everyone

Non-inf visuals are considered 'pizzaz' or 'distraction' depending on the student's neurological makeup, no? Some students thrive on those K-8 math materials filled with multicultural photos and sidebars of info not relating to the lesson..others want it Plain Jane, lesson only. Compare Beast Academy
http://www.beastacademy.com/store/product/3a to MEP
There are students that find non-informative visuals quite attractive.

And let's be honest. In the work world, those people who like the nonessential visuals already have the speaker's point; w/o the entertaining visuals they'd be doing something else during the droning phase -- sleeping, working on a different project, etc.

Katharine Beals said...

"Non-inf visuals are considered 'pizzaz' or 'distraction' depending on the student's neurological makeup, no?"

I used to think this was true but recent studies--e.g., those studies discussed in Willingham's book and other studies on the difficulty we all have with distractions and multitasking--have convinced me otherwise.

"those people who like the nonessential visuals already have the speaker's point"

What people like and what actually optimized their learning are two different things. Some people like the pizzaz whether or not they get the content. Other people get the speaker's point but don't like the pizzaz. I'm sure there's some overlap between these groups, but I doubt it's anywhere near total.