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After the workshop at #Undisciplining had gone rather well, I finally had some time to actually focus on the second session I needed to prepare for a conference in June. And initially I had been thinking of focusing this on an overview. If you are interested in how things fit together and/or on different levels contained within them, a tool like a prezi presentation that allows you to zoom in can be used to great effect.

However, as I reflected on what I wanted to do in the context of the conference I decided against the prezi and went with the traditional slides instead. The point of this particular talk was to present three different analogies I use within teaching and show some examples of how they work in practice. That could have been an overview, first framing the problem and then delving into the layers of how to solve it. The crucial thing, however, is that these analogies are not really linked to each other. They are all stand-alone, and the only thing they have in common is that they are all ‘everyday’ analogies, quite mundane things that my students will be familiar with (board games, clothes, sea creatures). As there is no real link between the analogies, I felt that the overview would not work, and on the contrary, that it might rather confuse. Slides are great when you want to walk people through something step-by-step. When moving on to the next slide, you can change the subject, mood and – most important – the focus of what you are saying, and of what your audience is thinking about (if they are listening, that is…).So in this case, I decided ‘to slide’.

I think this is also the reason I often use slides for my lectures. They allow me to boil down what I am saying into the most pertinent points to give a visual cue to remind me of what I wanted to talk about; for example they allow me to put up a quotation and then talk about just this, without distraction from anything else, before we move on. Ideally I then also have a whiteboard to further develop some of the point and sometimes I develop the overview on that – but this is development that happens in class, and is not pre-prepared – as it might come across when using a prezi.

I have heard people sneer at slide presentations and then present prezis that were basically just zooming from slide-like frame to slide-like frame. I think there is little point in doing that, if what you are saying is linear, you might as well use a slide format! A prezi makes most sense if you are exploring layers, not a standard sequence. The bad rep that slide presentations often get (Death by Powerpoint, etc.) isn’t due to the nature of them being a slide presentation, but rather down to bad design of the individual slides!

I guess my point is this: whether preparing a workshop, a conference presentation or a lecture, the tools we choose to use frame what it is possible to do. That’s what Fiona (2012) talks about when she talks about the ‘affordances’ of a genre. The traditional or conventional genre – in this case (PowerPoint) slides – might be exactly the right tool for the job. But it also might not be. It really depends on what you are trying to do. And that is well worth reflecting on before you choose what tools to use, rather than just go with the standard option.

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No, I’m not talking about whether we should slide down the banisters of life*, but rather this post (and the next) is a collection of thoughts on choosing the right tools when preparing for presentations…

In June I’ll be attending two conferences, and I am currently in the process of preparing my contributions for them. One of them is a workshop and the other a more traditional presentation, so out of the gate, we are dealing with different types of presentations (or genres?) here. The workshop is a collaboration (and I will post about the prep in more detail as well as about the actual workshop once it happened soon), and when I met up with my collaborator, Katy Vigurs, to have a chat about what we are going to do and how to organise this, she mentioned “our slides” in passing.

Here’s the thing: I wasn’t planning to do slides, at least not in the conventional sense. I try to avoid that for workshops. For a start I don’t like projecting something and then having people focus on something that is on the table in front of them. What should you concentrate on? The thing that is projected ona wall or the thing you are working on? What if you miss some vital instruction, so better focus on the projected thing, but that then breaks your concentration of working on the thing! If we had a lot of time, we could work with a stopping and starting model of working through stuff, but we only have 90 minutes and a lot to cover, so that wouldn’t work.

The other thing I don’t like about slides in this context (but that works wonderfully well in different contexts), is that slides have a list approach to information. I don’t mean that text on slides tends to be presented in a list format far too often (although it does), but rather the way they are organised. Each slide is one bit of information and once you move on, you move onto the next bit of information. In a way that sounds ideal for a workshop, but what if not everybody works at the same speed and with the same confidence? Yes, theoretically you can go back to previous slides, but you can’t really show two slides (or even more) at the same time. If you are giving people instructions as part of a workshop, chances are that not everybody is going to work at the same speed – and that is perfectly fine. But to make this as little anxiety inducing to participants as possible, we ideally have to find a way to keep instructions visible, even when we moved on to the next step. We can do this with a handout, but the problem with a handout is that if you give it to people during the workshop, you allow them to not just go back over content already covered, they can also skip ahead. I try to discourage people skipping ahead, because it can end up rushing the people who are going slower – and I have also found that sometimes people don’t do one step properly, skip to the next step (which might seem more fun) and then run into trouble later, because (guess what?) they didn’t do that one step properly. Or maybe I am just too much of a control freak… (definitely possible!).

So what we needed in the context of this workshop was a method that would let us deliver new bits of information in a controlled manner, while also allowing us to keep them visible once we are moving on to the next step. The solution: the humble flip chart. This means we can pre-prepare content, but can also develop it as we go. And while we can hide old content behind new content, we can also keep it visible by displaying it around the room. As it happens I have a roll of the ‘magic’ plastic flip chart stuff that will stick to pretty much any surface, so that will become our information delivery system. And I am also working on a handout to distribute at the end of the session.

Katy was fine with not doing slides, by the way. If we have a computer and projector in the room, we might use it to display this blog 😉

I am, however, still considering slides for my other conference presentation. More on that, prezi, props and slides in teaching in my next post.

 

*For the record, I think we should all try to slide down the banisters of life as often as possible, both literally and figuratively!