Are your pupils bored by the whiteboard?

16th December 2011 at 00:00
Technology was supposed to free education from the shackles of 'chalk and talk'. But too often PowerPoint presentations are just as dull, writes Liz Lightfoot

The speaker walks on to the stage and fiddles with a laptop. A slide flashes up with six densely worded bullet points. Whoops, it's the wrong one. Let's try that again. It's time for a PowerPoint presentation.

Gratefully, the speaker turns to the new slide and proceeds to read it aloud to the audience, which is fortunate as the typeface is so small they would need opera glasses to make sense of it.

A diagram flashes up that no one has time to read - and then it's on to the next one and the next. The slides have become the presentation. The speaker is superfluous.

There are an estimated 300 million PowerPoint users in the world making around 30 million presentations a day, many of them so appallingly boring that Microsoft has coined a word for them: snoozers. A favourite training video is entitled Life after Death by PowerPoint.

Conference-goers and business users can usually afford to take 20 naps and pick up written copies at the end. After all, not everybody can be Sir Ken Robinson, the professor who has people rolling in the aisles while he makes serious points about the lack of creativity in education.

Laughter during a PowerPoint presentation more usually takes the presenter by surprise. Either they have loaded the wrong slide - like the hapless teacher at a private school in West Sussex who showed a clip of a couple having sex to a class of eight and nine-year-olds - or they have failed to detect a spelling error ("Time is the enema" is accurate, according to spell checks).

But what about the millions of schoolchildren in this country and worldwide who might find themselves in front of mind-numbing slide presentations day after day? Is the white heat of technology taking us backwards? Teachers seem to use the 21st-century technology little differently from the way their forerunners employed the 19th-century slate board.

Steve Beswick, Microsoft's director for education in the UK, is quite blunt about it. "PowerPoint is used extensively in schools today. In the right hands it is an exciting tool that engages the students through multi-media and teachers doing amazing things with it. In the wrong hands it can be detrimental and there are those who centre their lesson around the slides or, at worst, read from them," he says.

"When we talk to teachers and students about PowerPoint we always show the Death by PowerPoint video. We show them the different features they could use and they all tell us: 'I never knew PowerPoint could do that!'"

The training video was created by Don McMillan, an American "corporate comedian" who worked in Silicon Valley until he won a stand-up comedy competition. It is now his most popular video on YouTube, with more than 600,000 viewings.

"Too many bullet points and your key message will not stand out. In fact, the term 'bullet point' comes from people firing guns at annoying presenters," he jokes.

"People tend to put every word they are going to say on their slides. Although this eliminates the need to memorise your talk, it makes your slides crowded, wordy and boring."

The classroom is a very different arena, however. Children are less likely to sit politely through a tedious presentation and there are those who question the widespread use of PowerPoint in schools. Richard Noss, professor of mathematics education at London University's Institute of Education, is one of them. He is the co-director of the London Knowledge Lab, a collaboration between the institute and Birkbeck College that brings together computer and social scientists to engage in research and teaching related to digital technologies.

"PowerPoint was originally designed for business presenters to replace the acetate slides and projectors they used to use. The way it is used in schools has reinforced the view that learning is about someone at the front giving you information. Knowledge is not education. Whiteboards have made it easy for people to go on as they always have, but in a more expensive way," says Professor Noss.

"I am not saying that the worse thing a teacher can do is use PowerPoint, because what really matters is how wonderful the teachers are. But if you want people to use technology for learning in the same effortless way that it has become part of other things in our lives then you have to find the appropriate technology."

It is possible to make presentations interactive and involve the pupils in their learning, says Nicki Maddams, an ICT teacher at Hartsdown Technology College in Margate, Kent. People could do a lot more with the technology if they took the time to learn how to use it fully and downloaded add-ons such as STAMP and Plex, she argues.

"In fact, it is my favourite tool and I use the hyperlinks to get pupils involved through games and team working," she says. One of her games teaches binary coding through a Flash game she found and embedded within a PowerPoint slide. Her students also used the software to build a Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-style quiz that can be used for different topics.

"Some people use a built-in template and over-use animations just because they can. You see some who like to write an essay on each slide," she says. "The good thing about PowerPoint is that you can use hyperlinks and embed videos and sound effects and all the material is in one place: you don't waste time swapping between lots of different screens."

Interactive learning

Over the past year, new software has been released that gives teachers the opportunity to engage pupils more directly in the use of whiteboards. Community School in Cornwall is one of the first to use Microsoft's Mouse Mischief in the classroom. Using the free add-on, up to 24 pupils use a wireless mouse on their desk to vote for the right answer, amend the slide or draw freehand on the whiteboard.

Deputy head Dan Roberts says all that is needed is a set of 24 wireless mice (he got one set for #163;50 on eBay and another by hoovering up spare mice around the school) a laptop and a USB hub. The Mouse Mischief software puts an icon for each student on the whiteboard and when they answer a question it disappears, showing the teacher how many have responded.

The voting results can be portrayed visually as a graph and the chart used to find the distribution of answers without revealing the names of those who got it right - or wrong. Teachers also use it to prompt discussion about issues and find out what pupils really think when allowed to respond anonymously.

Mr Roberts, a science teacher, often divides the whiteboard into two and the pupils into teams to illustrate a scientific topic on the board, using their mice as pens. "If you are teaching chemistry, you could ask them to draw the electronic configuration of a sodium atom and see which team does it fastest and most accurately," he says.

People learn by making mistakes and the voting system allows students to answer without being seen to get it wrong or being influenced by the responses of others. "Yesterday, I was walking around the school and saw a teacher getting pupils to justify their choice of answer before revealing the right one. That gives the teacher an opportunity to see the reasoning going on and where mistakes are being made," he says.

The school did a formal evaluation of the use of Mouse Mischief. "Comments from the students were that it is really fun and interactive, encourages you through being competitive and helps you learn through experience. Teachers said it was great for visual learners. One of the sixth-formers said she liked being able to answer questions and test herself without getting things wrong in front of everyone else."

Primary teacher Dave Bishop says inserting strong images in a presentation is an invaluable way of getting poor readers to visualise and make connections between letters, words and things all around them and in their imaginations. The six letters in "dragon", for example, conjure up strong and colourful images that he shows on the screen before inviting pupils to use their imagination to visualise what the word means. He also constructs popular multiple-choice quizzes and games such as sorting out Victorian kitchen artefacts from those of the modern day.

Mr Bishop, from Clase Primary in Swansea, has one golden rule: "Never repeat what you say on the slide. PowerPoint slides should be there to support your teaching, not to lead it."

Like so much modern technology, it is how teachers use PowerPoint that counts. Professor Noss thinks it hardly surprising that whiteboards are being used in much the same way as blackboards. Whenever something new comes along, the tendency is to use it in the same, familiar way as the thing it replaced, he says. It was not by accident that cars were originally called horseless carriages.

But if the most widely used and popular software in education is taking the classroom back to Victorian times, what can be done about it?

It is not up to teachers to design software and do the research, says Professor Noss - they are doing a difficult enough job already. He wants to see more investment in the search for innovative ways to harness the potential power of technology in ways appropriate to teaching and learning.

And one place to start is with the younger generation. There are more than two million computer programs written mainly by young people all over the world on the SCRATCH website run by MIT Media Lab, he says. "Young people are using technology in a way that was unthinkable a few years ago and it gives a sense of the future."

Learning styles

Research into PowerPoint and learning styles carried out by Ole Lauridsen at Denmark's Aarhus University suggests it is possible to construct presentations that are accessible to different types of learners. But he warns: "In spite of the fact that we have moved to the concept of active learning, the way we use technology is not always adapted to the learning styles of students."

Lauridsen divides learners into three categories: "analytics", who do best when new information is presented in steps; "global learners", who prefer to process information in large chunks; and a third category, who can do both at once.

To cater for all, he says, there should be a hand-out given out at the start, including a summary of the material in the slides and the verbal presentation. There should be visuals and colours in the slides for global learners, but not so much that it interferes with the thought processes of analytics.

"Neither can absorb an uninterrupted stream of information so there should be pauses of 10-20 seconds after every second slide," he says.

Slide rules

- Use font size 24 as a minimum.

- No more than five bullets.

- Use sans serif fonts - those without "feet" - such as Verdana, Arial or Franklin Gothic Book.

- Pictures must be related to the verbal content to avoid challenging the working memory.

- Limit the number of colours in one slide. A mixture of colours is confusing and makes the eyes jump.

- Blue is hard to see on a white background.

- Red is perceived in the foreground, blue in the background and yellow and green in between.

- Good contrast between the text and background is essential. Dark text on a light background is easiest to read.

Source: Learning Styles and PowerPoint: a new and exciting approach

Get more from your whiteboard

Mouse Mischief

Enables the use of up to 24 wireless mice linked to the whiteboard.


A subtitling tool that allows closed captions to video and audio files in presentations.


Plex for PowerPoint

Zoom into slide sections and move between slides that are not sequential. Create a master background slide that allows you to zoom in and out of all the slides. http:tinyurl.com7euetku

Or alternatively ...

PowerPoint isn't the only software for putting presentations on screen. Alternatives include:


Already gaining popularity with UK teachers, this cloud-based system allows you to create dynamic presentations. Pictures, text and other information can be laid out as a mind-map, or in any way or size you like, and there is a real "wow factor" as the camera flies between the information. Free licences are available for teachers.


This is the OpenOffice equivalent to Microsoft's PowerPoint (or Apple's Keynote), so it is free and open-source. It can read PowerPoints and export slides as PDFs and presentations as Adobe Flash files.

Googledocs Presentations

Googledocs offers a suite of cloud-based work programs, including one that makes presentations. Although simpler than PowerPoint, it is free, and multiple users can edit a single presentation or document at the same time on different computers - handy for collaborative classroom work.

A Prezi presentation on alternatives to PowerPoint is at: http:


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