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Power to the pupils

With every lesson a performance, teachers are forever on the lookout for anything that will lift their classroom show. No wonder, then, that many have welcomed computerised presentation programs that offer automated slideshows with, according to choice, animated graphics, sound effects and an abundance of other visual elements. While most use Microsoft PowerPoint, a few prefer alternatives like Lotus Freelance Graphics or StarOffice, and there are programs like Semerc's Project Presenter and Textease Presenter that have been designed for children and the classroom. But program preference aside, all teachers agree on one thing; these programs can add colour, sound and style enough to transform a routine lesson into a lively, even memorable session.

One such enthusiast is Gary Morgan, assistant headteacher in charge of ICT at Whitchurch High School in Cardiff. "In ICT terms, the big breakthrough with the staff was some recent New Opportunities Fund (NOF) PowerPoint training," he says. "It was the one thing that really hit them, and now it absolutely thrills them."

Morgan's own zeal for PowerPoint began four years ago when he was looking for ways to liven up a lesson in systems management - "a very dry topic" - for a GCSE IT class. "I got the kids to design and present just one slide on a key issue in that topic. First, teachers marked the presentation and then the kids assessed each other's. It was terrific. The whole session had a huge impact."

Not least, Morgan thinks, because his pupils were learning without really realising it. "While they thought they were just learning PowerPoint, the systems issues they were covering were actually sinking in - partially, perhaps, because they linked meanings to the graphic they'd put on the slide. In the end, I got through that part of the syllabus better than I'd ever done."

Morgan feels that pride of ownership was a major influence. "The kids absolutely love using PowerPoint. It's all their own, and they get a real thrill from presenting it, especially when it's done on an electronic whiteboard." He also feels that a presentation can aid pupils' personal skills and boost their general confidence. "At Whitchurch, Year 7 ICT pupils introduce themselves to the rest of the class with a brief slide show profile that lists their hobbies and general background, complete with a picture downloaded from a digital camera. It really helps them to settle in."

At the St Laurence C of E Infants' School at Northfield, Birmingham, the NOF training is having a similar effect to that of the training in Morgan's school - at least where PowerPoint is concerned. "It began when one of the teaching groups used PowerPoint for a literacy hour presentation," says Julie Berrow, the school's ICT co-ordinator. "When other teachers saw them do it, they realised what a good teaching tool it could be. It really seemed to catch their imagination."

With a brand-new ICT suite soon to be installed, the St Laurence's staff are keen to learn how to use PowerPoint so that they can gain maximum benefit from the new equipment. "Finding out about the program is a bit time-consuming to begin with, but you soon get the knack," says Berrow. "We currently use it to present material like phonics, or for the teaching of opposites like updown and bigsmall. The children love it because it's eye-catching and very lively. One teacher is already planning how to teach five and six-year-old children how to make their own presentations.

"Given what we hear and read about the importance of high expectations of children, I think it's a terrific idea."

At Park Community School in Havant, Hampshire, assistant head teacher and ICT co-ordinator Alan Turnham is equally enthusiastic. While giving individual help around the class, he uses PowerPoint to screen a looped sequence of three or four slides showing details of a practical activity or a list of lesson objectives. This way, he is not interrupted as frequently as before. "It's like having an extra teacher," he says.

But is the presentation largely a means of entertainment, or does it bring about a real improvement in pupil response? Turnham has no doubts. "Absolutely an improvement. My Year 10 GNVQ ICT class, for example, is going far better than I ever imagined it would. I've just given a PowerPoint presentation on spreadsheets, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the lower ability students in particular did. It's all down to the versatility of the program, its dynamism. You can have a straightforward list of facts, you can incorporate videoclips, add clip art, sound, animations and photographs. It really can make a big difference."

Like Morgan, Turnham feels that much of the difference lies in the way that a good presentation visibly encourages learning. "The program definitely increases concentration and improves retention. True, there is a danger that pupils can be tempted to use it just for fun, so you have to steer them away from all the flashy stuff - the bright backgrounds and all the sound and animation effects. Once you've done that, they'll settle down and produce some great things."

As an example, Turnham points to those Year 7 pupils who, through a slide sequence made up of text added to their own digital photographs, presented a seamless guide to school life. Now, he says, they're forever asking if they can make more presentations. Even more impressive were the two Year 11 GNVQ Intermediate ICT girl pupils who designed a presentation on learning packages. "Sensational," was Turnham's verdict. "These weren't high ability pupils, but I was staggered at what they'd turned out: cartoons, background music, smooth transitions, all immaculately planned and delivered."

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, both Morgan and Turnham stress that neither PowerPoint nor any similar program is the solution to every teaching problem. "It's not necessarily an advantage over any one traditional method of presentation, but it does offer enormous benefits from being able to present material in a variety of ways," adds Julie Berrow. And all three warn against using it too often either for self or pupils; a treat can soon become a bore. Not a panacea then, but presentation software provides a certain pleasure and is a superb educational tool. Most teachers would settle for that.

Lotus Freelance Graphics

Price: pound;149 (comes as part of Lotus Smart Suite), educational discounts available

Tel: 0870 6006123

www.lotus.comhome.nsfwelcome.uk

PowerPoint

Price: pound;100 (comes as part of OfficeXP suite); Schools agreement: pound;45

Microsoft www.microsoft.comeducation

Project Presenter

Price: pound;39 single user. pound;10 extra per machine.

Semerc

Tel: 0161 827 2927

www.granada-learning.com

StarOffice Version 6

Price: pound;45.10 single user

Sun Systems

Tel: 01279 822 822

www.sun.co.uksoftwarestaroffice

Textease Presenter

Price: pound;39 single user. pound;10 extra per machine.

Textease

Tel: 01335 343421

www.textease.com

All prices exclude VAT

Laurence Alster

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