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.