I can’t think of a piece of software with such consistently bad press as PowerPoint (especially in higher education). Here are some examples:
PowerPoint, the favoured tool of presentation for the unimaginative. All right, perhaps that is unfair, but I am suffering the after-effects of a surfeit of lifeless, list-full PowerPoint presentations that frequently served as a barrier to meaningful engagement between tutor, student and learning [...] It all became so routine, so anodyne, so dull. (Ward 2003 n.p.)
… the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. (Tufte 2003: 7)
… foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, an intensely hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organising every type of content, breaking up narratives and data into slides and minimal fragments, rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spatial analysis, conspicuous chartjunk and PP Phluff, branding of slides with logotypes, a preoccupation with format not content, incompetent designs for data graphics and tables, and a smirky commercialism that turns information into a sales pitch and presenters into marketeers. (Tufte 2006: 4)
Such discourse reeks of technological determinism: lectures are tedious because of a piece of software; human agency is denied. PowerPoint in constructed as a malevolent presence reducing its users to helpless zombies, banging out bullet point after bullet point, slide after slide.
Personally, my take on PowerPoint is closer to Ian Kinchin:
… what PowerPoint is actually doing is to make explicit the taken-for-granted assumptions and implicit epistemological leanings of lecturers who are using it. The stereotypic teacher-centred, noninteractive mode of lecturing … is simply clarified and amplified by the use of PowerPoint. (Kinchin 2006 : 647)
Ok, perhaps this reeks a little of crude instrumentalism (it ain’t the tool but how you use it) but it has the merit of acknowledging agency and the often unacknowledged beliefs and habits we bring with us in our encounters with technology. We shape the technology as much as it shapes us.
And what of Prezi? Is it credible alternative to PowerPoint and the tyranny of linearity and sequentiality (one damn bullet point, one damn slide after another) that PowerPoint embodies?
The jury’s out but my initial thoughts are that it repackages linearity and sequentiality, dressing it up as something different through the admittedly neat visual trope of a canvas whose sections one clicks on to zoom into a detailed view. But users can – and do – create ‘paths’ or lines that connect one piece of content – some text or an image – with another piece of content placed on the canvas. Is this so very different to a PowerPoint slide? Could we see the text or media we place on the Prezi canvas as akin to the text or media we add to each individual PowerPoint slide?
A more positive take on Prezi is that allows us to think through the possibilities creating texts informed by what Gunther Kress calls the ‘logic of the image’. Here is Kress on the ‘logic of the text’ and the ‘logic of the image’:
The two modes of writing and of image are each governed by distinct logics, and have distinctly different affordances. The organisation of writing – still leaning on the logics of speech is governed by the logic of time, and by the logic of sequence of its elements in time, in temporally governed arrangements. The organisation of the image, by contrast, is governed by the logic of space, and by the logic of simultaneity of its visual/depicted elements in spatially organised arrangements. (Kress 2003: 1-2)
With Prezi, one could arrange a space with text and other media types but with no clear ‘entry point’ and no single, linear ‘reading path’. Even if the Prezi screen’s content is mainly textual, there are multiple ‘entry points’ and multiple user-defined reading paths. In this more positive interpretation of Prezi, it’s a presentation tool about space; PowerPoint is a presentation tool about time.
Prezi might be a cool tool that helps us think about what a presentation is or might be. It might make us more mindful of the possibilities of a more media-rich presentation. But it also might just be a tool that bored PowerPoint users – and hey, aren’t we all bored of it? – use for novelty value and because of the attraction of its much (much) slicker interface.
I think a lot of ed techies – me included – like to deride PowerPoint as part of our professional identity performance as technology connoisseurs. We show our mastery of the chronically mutating technoscape by our embrace of the New (Twitter, Google Wave etc.) and our displays of bored indifference and condescension to mainstream technologies (pretty much anything Microsoft Office). I’m bracing myself for the 2009-10 conference season in which Prezi is going to be the inevitable default software of the technorati in their presentations.
PowerPoint is soooooo last century darlink; Prezi where it’s at today.
But I’m just not so sure …
Kinchin, I. (2006). Developing PowerPoint Handouts to support meaningful learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(4): 647-650
Tufte, E. (2003). ‘PowerPoint Is Evil’. Wired. Issue 11.09. Accessed 12 March 2007, fromhttp://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html
Tufte, E. (2006 2nd ed.). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Cheshire Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC.
Ward, T. (2003, May 20). I watched in dumb horror. The Guardian. Retrieved March 12, 2007, fromhttp://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/comment/story/0,9828,959242,00.html