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Friday, April 20, 2018

It's time to have the talk... about PowerPoint

Few things are more ubiquitous and less discussed in legal education than PowerPoint. It inspires obsessive use and targeted hate.

I use PowerPoint with varying degrees of regularity in the classroom (and while I'll focus on that here, some of the discussion points are fruitful for consideration for academic talks, too). (As an aside, I typically used Prezi, a more dynamic open-canvas environment than PowerPoint, but given the decline of Flash and Prezi's move toward more PowerPoint-like features, I may be abandoning that platform soon.) And I use it for basically three things. (I'll use PowerPoint as a shorthand for basically any audio-visual display in the classroom, but PowerPoint does come with its own stigma and faults.)

First, the text of a rule or a statute. When I teach Civil Procedure or Evidence, I'm displaying the text frequently. It's quite valuable, I've found, when students break into small groups to work on a hypothetical, or when I'm walking them through a hypothetical--the giant actual text of the rule miraculously helps them pay attention to the words. (I'll very rarely use a quotation from a Supreme Court opinion that establishes a common standard.)

Second, a visualization of some concept, like a mind map or a flow chart. It's designed to synthesize dense material into a digestible format.

Third, photographs, audio-video components (more on that below), or other ways of bringing certain concepts to life. (I've even resorted to the occasional meme.)

In all three, I very rarely churn through a series of slides. Most would linger for minutes, if not most of the class.

Now, some might never use PowerPoint--or, at least, while they might occasionally put up a YouTube video, but wouldn't call such an exercise "using PowerPoint." Some might take a more moderate approach to using PowerPoint to outline topics in class or mention case names & titles to anchor discussion.

But then there are the PowerPoint, in my view, over-users. That might include churning through 20 or 30 slides in a single 60- or 90-minute class. There might be large blocks of text, sometimes summarizing a case, sometimes big chunks of law. There's a temptation to read through it, right off the screen. Students may start transcribing the content furiously on their laptops.

And the visuals. Oh, the visuals. Color schemes, clip art, busyness.

I thought I'd share a few things to think about and ways one might improve the use of PowerPoint. There are the great critics like Edward Tufte, and I can hardly add to them. (I confess, I sometimes violate these principles myself, so typing them out is designed to give me some structure.) This also requires knowledge of far more than PowerPoint--you need to be aware of the location where you are presenting as much as, if not more so than, the software itself.

First up: display. High-resolution is essential, and one should be very reluctant to do too much with PowerPoint if your audience is going to be gazing at grainy lower-resolution displays. Smaller fonts or more subtle items will be lost. The same goes true for the size of the display and how high it's mounted from the audience--craning necks looking to a small screen dramatically diminish impact, particularly for those in the back of a large auditorium or up near the front of a high-mounted display. True HD with good sightlines make use of PowerPoint. If you don't know the room? Simpler (or abolition) is better.

Second, aspect ratio. Most tech departments have adjusted displays for a 16:9 (i.e., "widescreen) ratio. But most PowerPoint users still default to 4:3 aspect ratios, leaving you with a box with black bars along the side. That means you're actually shrinking the display size and asking more of your audience. If you know ahead of time the aspect ratio in the room, then you can maximize the real estate available. If not? I would create two separate presentations, one 4:# and one 16:9.

Third, lighting. If you've got a touch-screen HD display, you're probably not as worried. But many projectors have dim bulb. They're placed in rooms with lights that shine right on the display, dimming the look further and washing out or causing glare. So you can black out the room (good luck, notetakers), or try to figure out which light switches will sufficiently illuminate the display. If you don't know the room? Stick with black-and-white as much as you can, or don't use it. (Noticing a theme about familiarity with the room...?)

Fourth, color, hue, and saturation. This can work in conjunction with the brightness of the display. Greens and grays, or low contrast, might get lost if the color profile is poor. Color-on-color may get washed out. Clear black text on a white background (unless you're in a pitch black room, then go for white text on a black background) is ideal, even if boring. Accentuate borders if you'd like--the audience won't need to read your borders, and a little color loss isn't the worst there.

Fifth, typeface, size, and readability. Sans serif fonts are usually best with low resolution displays (it's a reason that Calibri, icky a typeface as it might be, is the default for Word, because it's highly readable on a computer monitor). It means that you may have a more contemporary look, but better to have readable Arial, Helvetica, or Verdana than... well, something not readable. Keep in mind that the size of the room often means you need font sizes larger than you want.

Sixth, audio. Oh, the audio. Rooms are usually not designed with optimal speakers, particularly for bass, so simply be careful about how much audio takes place in your room and what it sounds like. Modest use is best... unless, again, you have deep knowledge of the acoustics and can ensure that the A/V will work well.

These are all the picayune design issues that you may not think about sitting at a computer. But that's because, as a presentation format, the presentation component is too often ignored--I hope these provide a few things to think about for your next presentation.

In terms of substantive use, I won't add to the stuff that Professor Tufte writes about (he's soundly criticized PowerPoint as a reason for the Columbia shuttle disaster). But, at a time when we obsess over pedagogy, learning styles, professionalism in the classroom, and the like, I'm not sure we critically evaluate our use of A/V in the classroom. I try to, as best I can. But a lot of priors make critical insight almost impossible to address--"Oh, I never user PowerPoint," for instance, makes any critical evaluation of someone else's A/V challenging, or often blocks any discussion about how one might meaningfully add technology to the classroom. Or, "I worked really hard on these slides" opens the door that criticism of the slides means devaluing that person's work product.

That's of course not to say that we all have very different teaching styles--I loved some courses with faculty who simply spoke, lectured, engaged in Socratic dialogue without a stitch of A/V; and I loved some courses with faculty who'd flash images of stuff from the cases or anchored discussions in the text of the rule. My own classes can vary widely in how much tech I use. But I hope we can think more about it, and perhaps even improve upon it for our students' sake.

Posted by Derek Muller on April 20, 2018 at 12:53 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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