Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Prezi, PowerPoint, multimodality and the 'logic of the image'

I can't think of a piece of software with such consistently bad press as PowerPoint (especially in higher education). Here are some examples:

PowerPoint, the favoured tool of presentation for the unimaginative. All right, perhaps that is unfair, but I am suffering the after-effects of a surfeit of lifeless, list-full PowerPoint presentations that frequently served as a barrier to meaningful engagement between tutor, student and learning [...] It all became so routine, so anodyne, so dull. (Ward 2003 n.p.)

… the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. (Tufte 2003: 7)
… foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, an intensely hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organising every type of content, breaking up narratives and data into slides and minimal fragments, rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spatial analysis, conspicuous chartjunk and PP Phluff, branding of slides with logotypes, a preoccupation with format not content, incompetent designs for data graphics and tables, and a smirky commercialism that turns information into a sales pitch and presenters into marketeers. (Tufte 2006: 4)
Such discourse reeks of technological determinism: lectures are tedious because of a piece of software; human agency is denied. PowerPoint in constructed as a malevolent presence reducing its users to helpless zombies, banging out bullet point after bullet point, slide after slide.

Personally, my take on PowerPoint is closer to Ian Kinchin:
… what PowerPoint is actually doing is to make explicit the taken-for-granted assumptions and implicit epistemological leanings of lecturers who are using it. The stereotypic teacher-centred, noninteractive mode of lecturing … is simply clarified and amplified by the use of PowerPoint. (Kinchin 2006 : 647)
Ok, perhaps this reeks a little of crude instrumentalism (it ain’t the tool but how you use it) but it has the merit of acknowledging agency and the often unacknowledged beliefs and habits we bring with us in our encounters with technology. We shape the technology as much as it shapes us.

And what of Prezi? Is it credible alternative to PowerPoint and the tyranny of linearity and sequentiality (one damn bullet point, one damn slide after another) that PowerPoint embodies?

The jury’s out but my initial thoughts are that it repackages linearity and sequentiality, dressing it up as something different through the admittedly neat visual trope of a canvas whose sections one clicks on to zoom into a detailed view. But users can – and do – create ‘paths’ or lines that connect one piece of content – some text or an image – with another piece of content placed on the canvas. Is this so very different to a PowerPoint slide? Could we see the text or media we place on the Prezi canvas as akin to the text or media we add to each individual PowerPoint slide?

A more positive take on Prezi is that allows us to think through the possibilities creating texts informed by what Gunther Kress calls the 'logic of the image'. Here is Kress on the 'logic of the text' and the 'logic of the image':

The two modes of writing and of image are each governed by distinct logics, and have distinctly different affordances. The organisation of writing – still leaning on the logics of speech is governed by the logic of time, and by the logic of sequence of its elements in time, in temporally governed arrangements. The organisation of the image, by contrast, is governed by the logic of space, and by the logic of simultaneity of its visual/depicted elements in spatially organised arrangements. (Kress 2003: 1-2)
With Prezi, one could arrange a space with text and other media types but with no clear 'entry point' and no single, linear 'reading path'. Even if the Prezi screen's content is mainly textual, there are multiple ‘entry points’ and multiple user-defined reading paths. In this more positive interpretation of Prezi, it's a presentation tool about space; PowerPoint is a presentation tool about time.

Prezi might be a cool tool that helps us think about what a presentation is or might be. It might make us more mindful of the possibilities of a more media-rich presentation. But it also might just be a tool that bored PowerPoint users – and hey, aren’t we all bored of it? – use for novelty value and because of the attraction of its much (much) slicker interface.

I think a lot of ed techies – me included – like to deride PowerPoint as part of our professional identity performance as technology connoisseurs. We show our mastery of the chronically mutating technoscape by our embrace of the New (Twitter, Google Wave etc.) and our displays of bored indifference and condescension to mainstream technologies (pretty much anything Microsoft Office). I'm bracing myself for the 2009-10 conference season in which Prezi is going to be the inevitable default software of the technorati in their presentations.

PowerPoint is soooooo last century darlink; Prezi where it’s at today.

But I’m just not so sure …


Kinchin, I. (2006). Developing PowerPoint Handouts to support meaningful learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(4): 647-650

Tufte, E. (2003). ‘PowerPoint Is Evil’. Wired. Issue 11.09. Accessed 12 March 2007, from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

Tufte, E. (2006 2nd ed.). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Cheshire Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC.

Ward, T. (2003, May 20). I watched in dumb horror. The Guardian. Retrieved March 12, 2007, from http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/comment/story/0,9828,959242,00.html


Gill Ritchie said...

Hi Tony,

Just found your blog through the M25 group!

I've been looking a lot at Powerpoint recently. One thing I've thought was funny is that some people hate it but then come up with "PDF" slides that are just endless lists of bullets again...leading me to believe that they actually hate Microsoft..fair enough...let's prove we can produce really tedious presentations in a different format!

I've been reading Garr Reynold's "Presentation Zen" and Nancy Duarte's "Slideology" and I've been really enjoying them and there's some really great stuff in there about visual communication.

I've also been using TurningPoint a lot recently and of course, the major feature of this tool is it's integration with Powerpoint. A course I was on on interactive whiteboards made a great use of the animation features in Powerpoint, to rather good effect in some cases.
Also, I recently came across the Pecha Kucha movement, 20 slides with 20 seconds each and Matt Lindgard did his presentation on Friday in this format. It was very interesting!

I haven't looked at Prezi...I obviously should...maybe we could do something on these types of tool an this topic generally at one of the M25 Group meetings?

Tony McNeill said...

Hi Gill,

Thanks for your comment and the pointer to Pecha Kucha - looks a great idea. Sorry for delay in replying - I haven't set Blogger up to alert me to comments! I also think you're right in identifying electronic voting systems as giving PP a new lease of life. You might be interested in an ancient Slideshare presentation on this - http://www.slideshare.net/amcneill/pedagogic-powerpoint

AJCann said...

You're right that linearity is a problem, but it's also useful in establishing a narrative. I'd prefer a PowerPoint presentation mode based on the grid view with zoom in's. I supposes you could set Prezi up like this?

Anne Marie said...

I think you use Powerpoint very well. I hope I can as well and when Prezi first emerged I was very cynical about it. I used it a few weeks ago for this presentation:
The only thing that Prezi did that PPT wouldn't have allowed was sooming in to see the image of the mindmap about 2/3 of the way through. If I had been using PPT I guess I would have taken sequential screenshots but I don't think it would have worked as well. I think it also made the presentation of a series of screen shots a little bit more interesting.
I haven't used prezi yet in teaching. I was just pleased enough when I realised I could put audio on to a powerpoint in Slideshare!
Thanks for flagging up this post again:)

SueG said...

I think I am still learning about Prezi - each time I use it, I realise there are better ways, and that's how it was for me with Ppt too. Initially I was probably guilty of the straight linear bullet presentation, but that was long ago. I now use it within teaching sessions which incorporate electronic voting to spark debates and student engagement, weblinks to live news and regular "trips out" to relevant resources on our VLE or live enquiries with students to share some learning adventures.

Prezi shakes up student response at present as they are not so used to it, and for anything with lots of image, I think it is great - easily amendable and buildable and always has impact. But I havent got to expert level yet - I still need to learn much about how to lay out Prezi, including linking it in to ppts and docs.

Thanks for your blog.

Cromely said...

There are still so many simple features in PowerPoint that many users never discover. When I do a presentation and use ink annotations in PowerPoint with a TabletPC, many times the audience is amazed that that technique is even possible. Drawing on top of slides, or even on top of blank slides is a great way to break up the bullet-list monotony. It makes each presentation session unique. No other class will involve quite the same annotations.

But the linear nature is challenging. What appeals to me about Prezi is the ability to jump around the presentation tool more, and have back up "slides" readily available if the discussion goes in a way that calls for them. I can accomplish some of this with customer presentation in a PowerPoint Slide deck and with hyper-links to specific slides, but it's clumsy at best.

Treating to collection of slides or resources as nodes of information appeals to me. I've thought about redoing a slide deck as a website and linking around is one option, but browsers still feel like a kludgey tool for this.

Perhaps Prezi addresses these needs. It's worth experimenting with.

Anonymous said...

Hello Tony,

I found your blog from the link you placed on the Prezi site itself (http://prezi.com/rfsnedhqmhqa/thoughts-on-using-prezi-as-a-teaching-tool/).

Like Cromely, I am just beginning with using Prezi for my intercultural training programs (http://bit.ly/9IYOmT). And like you, using the tool has inspired ruminations about its potential to better augment the learning process.

Exactly how that will happen (or even if, for that matter) is still a work in progress, but your article has helped inspire me to continue to explore.

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

So refreshing to see a post like this. It's the content that matters, not the tools. I have seen many really bad Prezis!

I am curious, people moan about PowerPoint transitions, yet think all that zooming in and out on Prezi is OK?

Tony McNeill said...

Hi Colleen,

Thanks for the comments. I think there's been some comments in the blogosphere on Prezi and 'motion sickness'. It's interesting that Prezi have introduced some guidance on avoiding this too.

I wonder if it's related to the newness of the tool? I remember my first PowerPoints had lots of terrible transitions and effects (screeching tyres, machine guns etc.). It was once when the novelty rubbed off that I started to think properly about the effects of such transitions on my audience.

Bluesoju said...

I'd love to have a mix of Power point and Prezi. Prezi is missing some features we've already taken for granted when doing presentations.

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