The ‘problem’ with PowerPoint

Since Microsoft introduced PowerPoint in the mid-to-late 1990s as a tool for professionalizing presentations, along with Apple’s Keynote, Prezi and Slideshare, these platforms have become ubiquitous and unavoidable. PPT is embedded in HE for better of for worse wherever there is electricity, all around the world.

Universality of PPT. Copyright David Roberts 2016

More than a decade ago, Microsoft estimated that 1.25 million PowerPoint presentations take place every hour, and yet most of them are used as ‘shovelware‘ to deliver ‘sliduments‘. This is a term that covers the use of slides to present documents, sometimes also referred to as ‘data dumps’, and this in part can account for slides full of text. One writer suggests that sliduments are the ‘illegitimate offspring of the projected slide and the written document’. It’s something close to academia; we are expected not only to impart complexity of a sometimes arcane nature, but also to cover our bases by avoiding complaints from students that we haven’t fed them everything we can. When we combine this common academic approach (it’s not just academics who use this delivery method) with the dozens of other ways we present that involve pedagogic challenges, we might easily be forgiven for thinking that PowerPoint is the problem.

Death by PowerPoint. Copyright David Roberts 2016

We wouldn’t be alone. PowerPoint has attracted noisy opprobrium from far and wide, perhaps most notoriously from Edward Tufte, who is concerned at the cognitive style of PPT derived from the linearity of presentation established by the use of bullet point. He famously declared in Wired that ‘power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely’, leading to the declaration that PowerPoint is ‘evil’. In the ‘evil’ range, Google’s former head of research, Peter Norvig, compared PPT with a loaded AK47 assault rifle because it could harm so many people. His parody of the Gettysburg Address done using PPT is famed. PowerPoint, it is declared, makes us stupid’. It even shouldered some of the blame for the Columbia shuttle disaster.

But perhaps there’s an uncritical, repetitive and even trendy dimension to this matter. It is water-cooler talk at conferences now to disparage and lampoon PPT. Yet here is a platform capable of communicating more than just text. It is a truly versatile and stable means of delivering what we choose to deliver, how we want to. We can embed videos, sound, images, hyperlinks, charts, maps, graphs, shapes, screenshots, objects, equations and more. But we choose to use primarily text, in the most visual, oculocentric era of human evolution. That choice is undoubtedly aided and abetted by Microsoft’s techno-deterministic direction: we open a new slide for a new presentation and it’s bullet-points that direct our cursors first and foremost.  Taking a step back, then, we might look at the issue as being more user-defined that a product of a poor platform, implying perhaps that we could be thinking about the baby we are ejecting with the bathwater.

Baby and bathwater. Copyright David Roberts 2016

MML theory and the limited data we have so far accumulated in and around this CoP provides us with a valid reason to think about how we use and can use PPT. If an apposite image is worth a thousand words – and the evidence so far corroborates this notion – and we have a platform capable of visual projection, marrying the two doesn’t seem like making a Frankensteinian monster.  Indeed, it might seem almost rude not to. This is less about suggesting that we are bad workers blaming our tools, and more about hegemony of practices that began before the visual era manifested digitally and accessibly, and throughout a period when critique of PPT use was dominated by an uncritical critique on a speeding bandwagon. We used PPT the way we had been trained to deliver knowledge and understanding to students traditionally, in an orthodox community that has belittled any paradigm challenging the centrality of logocentrism. In some quarter, suggesting we apply images still provokes reactions that in other eras got a lot of wide women burned as witches. In essence, proposing imagery as a valid and viable route to communicating complexity and meaning to students is a direct challenge to the dominant paradigm that declares language to be the primary authoritative and legitimate conveyor of meaning. I’m only partly speaking tongue-in-cheek when I say that the idea of visuality as possessing parallel pedagogic legitimacy as a delivery medium in its own right is almost heresy when considered epistemologically and in terms of how scholars like Freire and Foucault have characterized power and pedagogy.

Burned at the Stake by William Mortensen. Copyright