Sunday, 2 November 2008

So what's wrong with the bullet list, anyway?

The bullet list
Despite its ever-increasing popularity, concerns have been raised about PowerPoint’s suitability for purpose. Its most devastating critic is Edward Tufte who in a controversial essay (Tufte, 2003) claimed that, compared to more traditional means of presenting information, PowerPoint slideshows were of poor quality. He argued that PowerPoint corrupts statistical reasoning and that it often weakens verbal and spatial thinking. Further, he lambasted it for its ‘Stalinist’ control of slide design which, often as not, results in an hierarchical bulleted list. The bulleted list, he argued, is an impoverished communication form and he illustrated his reasoning with some striking examples (e.g. Norvig, 1999; Tufte, 2003b).

Tufte was far from a lone voice in this criticism. Sweller (2007) claimed that PowerPoint usage in lectures ran counter to good teaching principles derived from cognitive load theory. He argued that expecting students to read text displayed on a screen, whilst simultaneously listening to a teacher, put undue cognitive demands on students. ‘The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster’, he declared, ‘it should be ditched.’ These, and similar criticisms from others, have challenged the prevailing enthusiasm for PowerPoint and generated a vigorous debate about the value of presentation software.

Research findings
In their comprehensive review of PowerPoint research studies, Levasseur & Sawyer (2006) reported that most students held favourable attitudes towards the use of PowerPoint in lectures. Students found lectures more interesting and entertaining; they believed also that PowerPoint helped with the organisation of the lecture and assisted with note-taking. However, despite students’ positive attitudes, the authors could find little convincing evidence from any of the studies they reviewed that using PowerPoint improved learning outcomes.

Some clues as to why this might be so are provided by Adams (2006). She reminds us that PowerPoint is a tool and as such it is an ‘evocative object’ and invites its users to employ it in specific ways. ‘PowerPoint,’ she argues ‘exerts invisible lines of force on the choices teachers make’, leading them to produce impoverished slideshows consisting of bulleted lists.

The culprits
The culprits for this situation, asserts Adams, are the Microsoft software designers who made the assumption that a bulleted list would be the most useful knowledge form required by users and so the default program options are set to produce this. The designers incorporated various support features into PowerPoint to make it possible for a novice to create a slideshow with a minimum of technical knowledge. They developed for instance the infamous auto-content wizard which allows a beginner to generate a complete presentation by filling in a sequence of boxes on the screen. The software takes these entries and creates a fully-fledged set of slides – in bulleted lists, naturally. In addition to the auto-content wizard, the PowerPoint user encounters frequent and intrusive on-screen prompts such as ‘Click to add text’ which serve also to automate the slide design. Finally, slideshow templates are provided which require only that the user types in at the prompts and PowerPoint takes care of the design.

So what’s wrong with the bulleted list? Plenty, according to Adams. Every subject domain, she reminds us, has developed its own particular knowledge forms needed to communicate an understanding of its content. The bulleted list risks sidelining many of these and substituting them with an inappropriate alternative. PowerPoint’s hegemony she argues ‘is rendering obsolete valuable, perhaps critical knowledge forms’. Teachers need to act vigorously against PowerPoint’s ‘soft determinism’ and design slides that go beyond the bulleted list.

Reluctance to change
And yet many of us are reluctant to do so. We have got into a way of working with the technology that suits us and we find ourselves resisting calls for change; even when those calls appear well grounded. In my case it took nearly two years for the implications of what the research was reporting to begin to influence my practice – and even then, the initial changes I made were slight indeed. Concerned about this mismatch between theory and practice I began to keep a reflective journal about my use of PowerPoint and I'll recount here (at a later date) some of the issues that have emerged in my writing and subsequent practice.

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