In praise of… POWERPOINT!

I guess what you think of any piece of software is influenced by many things. What your job is. What your level of expertise is. How good the software is technically. Who created the software, even. But I think it’s also what lens are looking at the software through, what are your past experiences that have led you to that place?

For me, with say Excel, I see it as a flat database rather than a piece of paper that automatically adds up for me. I also see it as a great text manipulator, but that’s another story. So I use it in a very different way from others.

So I come to PowerPoint from a particular direction through a particular set of experiences. And the main one that influences how I use it is HyperCard. For you youngsters out there HyperCard was a software application developed by Apple for the Apple II and early Macs. HyperCard is 30 this year and no longer runs on modern Macs. Robert Cailliau, who developed the first web browser for the Mac and works alongside Tim Berners-Lee is said to have been influenced by HyperCard. For those of us that have used both the influence is obvious.

What you see today on the web is much of what you would see on HyperCard. HyperCard consisted of a stack of card, which contained data and, importantly, links between the cards. Or ‘hyperlinks’. Card creation was a drag and drop process and they could contain images as well as text. There was a hierarchy in the cards, with properties inherited from cards higher in the hierarchy. Any understanding of the development of the WWW has to be informed by understanding the development of HyperCard. Also, the Wikipedia page for HyperCard has one of my favourite sentences – “HyperCard was created by Bill Atkinson following an LSD trip.”

There are clear lines of similarity between PowerPoint and HyperCard. They both have stacks of cards. They both have hyperlinks. They both have multimedia content developed through a drag and drop interface.

Most people see PowerPoint in its “big stack of slides with lots of text that’s going to bore me for the next hour” guise. I see it as a version of HyperCard. So I tend to use it in a different way.

I make a great deal for use of the animation features, both with slides and between them. This can be used to great effect to build concepts bit by bit. Yes, there is an initial time overhead in this but the payback is considerable.

I make use of the programmability of PowerPoint, the use of buttons on the slides to link to different slides in the stack. Once you free a stack from the constraint of linearity it becomes a much more powerful tool. You can create quiz stacks – correct answer takes you to a reinforcement slide, incorrect answer takes you back to the content slide. There are obviously some other powerful tools around that do this, but PowerPoint does it simply and everyone already has it and is, at least in part, familiar with it. I taught basic programming concepts to Computing and ICT students using PowerPoint. In a lesson context you can have the stack ready to branch at key points depending on the level of understanding the students in front of you are showing.

I use it as a design tool. Most websites I’ve ever created have begun in wireframe form as a PowerPoint stack. And whilst we’re talking about design it’s a great way to manipulate and make compound images. Again, there are better tools for this, but we don’t always have them to hand and it’s not always as easy to share the results.

And finally, as a lesson planning tools it is fabulous. You can create the lessons, the handouts (if you have any) the notes for the teacher all in the same file. You can build not just lessons but preferably whole sequences of lessons in the same file. And when you need to change it you can easily do so. You can hide slides for particular groups or create custom shows from larger stacks. Most importantly, your planning is driven by the content rather than the structure of a lesson plan form. The possibilities are endless. If you know how the software works.

PowerPoint works as well as printed artifacts as it does on screen. It is universally sharable. It runs on most anything (as long as you don’t try to embed video). The presenter mode on OSX is great as you get to see the next slide and the current slide notes on the small screen whilst the current version is showing on the main screen.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

I suspect that most of the issues that people have with PowerPoint is that, as with many things, they have never been properly taught how to use it. This is often because the training provided is generic “Create a slide show” training. Which, to be fair, is usually as dull as ditchwater and doesn’t address they ways that a teacher would benefit from using the application.

I would urge you to give it another chance. To take look at it through a different lens.

I think you might like what you see.

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