Has PowerPoint Ruined the Classroom?

If you’re an instructional designer or trainer under the age of 45, there is a strong chance that you’ve never experienced a professional world without PowerPoint. PowerPoint is the central point of all classroom training. ….at least for the last 15+ years. But it wasn’t always that way.

At my first job in training, no one had PowerPoint. In fact, most people didn’t even have a computer. We’d write up handwritten pages and give them to someone else to type up and format. (In DOS-based WordPerfect no less!)  These were simpler times when having a copy made of a copy or an old article was a perfectly acceptable handout.

Below are answers to questions you may have about how we handled classroom training without PowerPoint.

How were classes designed without PowerPoint?

Simple. We used the basic ADDIE process of course and focused our content and exercises around our objectives – but we did it without PowerPoint! The focus of the training was on necessary information and skill building.  The facilitator guide was in outline form.

What if you needed to provide them with written materials?

Have you ever heard of handouts? I am referring to handouts that are not printouts of PowerPoint slides?  Yes, we’d give them stapled pages of content to refer to during and after the presentation or throughout the exercises.

What if you needed to illustrate something? 

We had this media tool called a flipchart! Or – for the higher-end training centers – a white board.

What is wrong with using PowerPoint? 

Absolutely nothing. I love the tool. I think it has incredible potential. I also think it is misused. Below is a list of the misuses that plague me the most.

  • Misuse #1 – Letting it drive design:

Far too often I hear courses described in terms of number of slides. Really?  Shouldn’t the course be described in terms of cognitive, behavioral  or attitudinal outcomes? Or to break it down even more, in terms of terminal and enabling objectives?

  • Misuse #2 – Using PowerPoint as a handout

I’m often asked to take tons of technical information and put it in a PowerPoint slide. I propose that anyone needing that technical information would prefer it in a typed handout. (Or electronically!) It’s a complete waste of time for the designer and reviewer and it’s seriously setting up the facilitator to put his or her audience into a coma.

  • Misuse #3 – Letting PowerPoint drive the design of learning

How many times have you been handed an existing PowerPoint deck and been asked to turn it into a class (or eLearning for that matter)? I suggest that most of us begin with the deck and just make modifications, adding objectives, exercises, and a knowledge check. That is not instructional design – it is content development! I challenge everyone to go back to the old-school tools like post-it notes or white boards.  Begin with your objectives, build your design, and then use the PowerPoint file to pull out content.  You will find you build a much better course.

  • Misuse #4 – Putting text on slides

Research studies show that hearing a message while reading a message is ineffective.  As proof, I will refer to the media almost everyone turns to – television. How often do you see commercials that have text on the screen? Only rarely and they are usually the low-end commercials that you ignore. Instead, you see scenes that are funny or that draw on your emotions. If text worked, advertisers would use it.

PowerPoint is designed for illustration – not for reading. If you have material that must be read, put it in a handout!

I’m sure there are at least a dozen more misuses of PowerPoint, but these are the ones that consistently bother me. Feel free to comment with more.

If you want to read or hear more about better uses of PowerPoint in learning, check these:

Leigh Anne Lankford is an instructional designer with more than 20 years’ experience in the field of HRD. She is a Relationship Manager for TrainingPros in Atlanta, working closely with training and development departments of large organizations to identify, attract, and on-board contract employees for very specific and specialized training and development needs. You can reach Leigh Anne at leighanne.lankford@training-pros.com.  

9 Responses to “Has PowerPoint Ruined the Classroom?”
  1. Thanks for the valuable nudge in the right direction, Leigh Anne! I couldn’t agree more – and while we are challening ourselves to be more innovative, we can also enhance our clients’ expectations around what the learning experience can be. Even something as simple as grabbing images of multi-colored sticky notes from iStock to display learning outcomes can be more effective than the standard 4 or 5 lines of bulleted text that usually open a workshop. Another great resource is the book Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte … especially the chapter on “Creating Ideas, Not Slides … some terrific ideas regarding ways to visually represent material, rather than relying on text.

  2. Leigh Anne–
    I really relate to misuse #3 as I am dealing with that particular issue right now. Your advice is right on point.

  3. Kate Tunison says:

    Good points Leighanne! Reading the PowerPoint with your back to your audience creates a disconnect and guarantees the slides, and the presenter, will be a sleep aid! These types of behaviors and the ones you mention give the tool a worse reputation than it deserves.

  4. Great post, Leigh Anne! Always start with the learning outcomes! PowerPoint should be the last thing you do… if you do it at all!

  5. Mark Gieringer says:

    Great job Leigh Anne. My “favorite” abuse is overloading the deck with every possible word and/or graphic the designer can think of, instead of succinct, direct key points, with simple supporting graphics. In the old days of overhead slide projectors and chalk boards, we kept the slides simple and on topic to support the star of the show, the presenter.

  6. Ross Blake says:

    Thank you for your wise observations, Ms. Lankford. As a trainer specializing in performance feedback, relationship and team-building, and conflict resolution skills, it’s interactions-not power point slides-that best trains participants.

  7. Try putting all that content into a handout to pass out, allow time for the handout to be read, then hold a discussion on the content. In a large group form teams to discuss, then hold large group discussion. Too risky? Put questions into the handout (use Bloom’s Taxonomy). To know more about how to present information, search for a guy named Edward Tufte

  8. Mike DeSousa says:

    Good article, Leigh Anne. Misuse #3 reminds us of not “putting the cart before the horse.” Would love to hear what people’s experiences are with http://prezi.com/ (like a non-linear, flexible user-centered PowerPoint). Originally, I thought that it was cool… until it gave me motion sickness! ~ M.

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