Wednesday, August 27, 2003

PowerPoint junkie 

The new booklet from Edward Tufte (and the Wired article spun from it) has spawned a wave of posts in the blogosphere, all of which are of the sort that "we all know this and we should do better". I've admired much of Tufte's work and I am also a PowerPoint user. So I bought the booklet, and I can testify that it is rather devastating to most of the packaged PowerPoint slides that come with economics texts. I also went to the website of Peter Norvig to see his Gettysburg PowerPoint presentation. I read this on Monday night, and then went to convocation and, of course, the President's convocation address, complete with PowerPoint. (I'll give him credit for not reading the slides -- besides which, most of them were soft warm fuzzy photos or graphs that were meaningless.)

I recall when I worked in Ukraine in 1996 I had been asked about a particular problem by an advisor and speechwriter for the governor of the national bank. I had some graphs I wanted to show, some data, and maybe two points. Working with a translator who might have to think a while before finding the right words for "elasticity of money demand with respect to expected inflation" means writing down some things in advance. Put this together and it's a good use for PP, in my view. I had the slides translated and just spoke in English (the advisor spoke English, but I had the feeling he understood less than what he let on.) I thought my brilliance had mesmerized him and he asked me at the end to teach him how to do that. "How to do what?" "That," he said, pointing to my laptop. I still misunderstood and thought he wanted me to show him how I got the data for the graphs. No, he wanted to know how to make PowerPoint presentations. ("Dammit, Jim, I'm an economist, not a software trainer!")

Should we abandon it for teaching? Yes and no. I think the prepackaged PP slides for a textbook are a good starting point, but the tendency is simply to use them as they come out of the box. That's a mistake. There are almost always too many, so you need to delete a bunch of them. I've read some people want one every minute or two, which for a presentation is fine, but for teaching is too fast. And then spin yourself out to websites as often as you can. And by all means -- give them the slides! To me the best reason to use PP in a classroom is that the students needn't worry they've missed anything, because they can download/print/view the slides over and over. So maybe they just listen and learn.