Creative Teaching with PowerPoint and Prezi (#VizLearning12 Recap Part 4)

My nine-year-old tells me that we’re scheduled for a zombie apocalypse today, so I thought I would go ahead and wrap up my series on the Carleton College Visual Learning Conference before I start making a map of convenience stores in less populated areas I can ransack for supplies. As I noted in my earlier posts (one, two, and three), this was one of the most interesting conferences I’ve attended, and one of my favorite sessions focused on using presentation tools (primarily PowerPoint and Prezi) in visually meaningful ways.

One of the three presenters in this session was my Vanderbilt colleague Tamara Carley, a graduate student in Earth & Environmental Sciences. Tamara shared a really fascinating project she conducted in an earth materials course in which students created multi-scale, multi-media concept maps using Prezi as a way of representing their understanding of course content. The course requires students to make connections among molecular and chemical properties of minerals (microscopic), rock characteristics visible with the naked eye (macroscopic), and larger geologic structures like mountains and volcanoes (megascopic). Prezi’s zooming capabilities were perfect for this, although it took most of Tamara’s students a few tries to figure out how to represent these multi-scale relationships visually.

Tamara was a participant in the Teaching-as-Research Fellows program run by my teaching center, and through that program I was able to advise Tamara a little in the design of this project. But the core idea of the project–creating multi-scale concept maps using Prezi to represent multi-scale content–was all Tamara’s and, frankly, it’s kind of brilliant. I’d love to see more instructors use Prezi (and similar tools) in this kind of visually meaningful way. For a little more info on Tamara’s work, check out the Prezi that she presented at Carleton:

Consider the question Tamara asked her audience at the Carleton conference: Do you have multi-scale content in your courses that might lend itself to a zooming concept map? If you teach art history, you might have students illustrate relationships among paintings, artists, and art movements, for instance. (Add brushstrokes for a fourth level if you like!) Or have students create concept maps featuring individuals, groups, and organizations in an organizational development course.

Another presenter in this session was Robert Smythe of Temple University, who shared ways he uses¬†Pecha Kucha in his courses. Pecha Kucha (pronounced like this) is the presentation format in which one has 20 slides, each of which is on-screen for 20 seconds, to illustrate one’s talk. These 400-second presentations can be incredibly effective ways to tell stories and share ideas, with the constraints imposed by the format often leading to creatively designed presentations. I’ve known about Pecha Kucha for a while now, but, until Robert’s talk, I hadn’t thought of Pecha Kucha as a brainstorming tool.

(My sketchnotes on Robert’s talk.)

Robert has his students create PKs at the start of their research process, kind of like visual freewriting. Students find 20 images that are relevant to their topic and interesting, they toss these images in a slide deck set up for PK (one that auto-advances every 20 seconds), and basically riff on the images during their 400-second, in-class presentations. Robert shared audio and slides from a couple of student PKs, and they weren’t the highly polished PKs I’m used to seeing (like these from PK Atlanta). In fact, they were kind of a mess. But that was the point, to gives students some tools and a platform for putting together some initial ideas and explorations on a topic.

I was so impressed with this idea, that I tried it out in my cryptography course this fall. The students had just read Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (well, the first 42% of it) and I wanted them to explore some of the themes in the novel during class. After a few warm-up clicker questions about the characters in the novel, I asked each student to come up with a creative and interesting title for a blog post they could hypothetically write about the novel. I typed these titles into a PowerPoint slide on the big screen (you can see them here) and then asked my students to get into groups of three and select a title around which to build a PK presentation. I showed them part of a PK (this one) that I thought was pretty good, but not completely polished, so they would see what they could do with the format, then turned them loose for the rest of the class. Although none of the students completed their PKs during that 45 minutes of class time and only one student was brave enough to deliver his PK at the start of the next class, I think the activity worked well for having students make sense of the novel’s themes, connect them to other ideas in the course, and do so in an interactive, multi-modal way.

The third presenter in the “Presentation and Pedagogical Modes” session at Carleton was Doug Foxgrover, communications and training coordinator at Carleton College. Not only did Doug explicitly encourage us to take sketchnotes during his talk, he also provided an informative and entertaining history of presentation technologies, going all the way back to early lantern slide projectors. Doug noted that back in the days of overhead projectors and 35mm slides, a presentation often took a team of people to pull off, including content experts, storyboarders, scriptwriters, and the “performer” who actually delivered the presentation. These days, we expect college instructors to play all of those roles!

(Doug didn’t have to tell me twice to take sketchnotes on his talk!)

Doug argued that showing and telling is often more effective than either individually, an argument I’ve heard and read many times as I’ve explored the world of visual thinking. But Doug’s best piece of advice was a caution for presenters: Show only what you want your audience to see. “If you put other stuff up there, people will look at it.” Obvious, perhaps, but very helpful, nonetheless!

That’s it for my recap of the Visual Learning Conference, but see Chris Franchese’s recap of this same panel for more good thoughts. I have my fingers crossed that Carleton will host the conference again, in spite of the fact that their visual learning grant has come to an end. Higher education needs spaces where we can figure out ways to incorporate more visual thinking in our teaching.

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