Who's bored by the whiteboard?

6th January 2012 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 onto the stage and fiddles with a laptop. A slide flashes up with six densely-worded bullet points. Oops, it's the wrong one. Let's try 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 about 30 million presentations a day, many of them so 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. But what about the millions of schoolchildren worldwide who might find themselves in front of mind- numbing slide presentations day after day? Teachers seem to use the 21st- century technology little differently from 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 multimedia. 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 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.

"The way PowerPoint 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 worst 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.

"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. 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 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. Saltash.net Community School in Cornwall is one of the first to use Microsoft's Mouse Mischief. 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 pound;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 faster and more 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 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, from Clase Primary in Swansea, 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 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."

Professor Noss wants to see more investment in the search for innovative ways to harness the potential power of technology for 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."


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 relate to the verbal content to avoid challenging the working memory.

Limit the number of colours in one slide. A mixture 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.

Sources: 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. bit.ly5wLxBy


A subtitling tool for presentations.


Plex for PowerPoint

Allows flexibility using non-linear slide content.


Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today