04 December 2011

On re-working presentations...

I have just been re-working a presentation from a couple of weeks ago to put out on the net as support material for the session I used it for. As usual it has taken much longer than I had intended. Good! The delay has helped me to evaluate some parts of the argument, and modify it sensibly in the light of some of the remarks made in discussion.

I use SlideShare to post presentations to my blogs and web-pages, but it doesn't handle fancy effects well (not that I use many of them, other than building up graphics). So I have to break down many slides into their components, and run them as a sequence...

What I have learned over the years, but never condensed/collapsed until now to the extent that I could post it or teach it (and probably all you readers are way ahead of me on this) is that powerpoint is rubbish at handling arguments and needs to be wrestled into submission.

I've written about this general issue before (here, with links to previous stuff) but not about the epistemology of presentation packages (you can get at Edward Tufte's and others' takes on this via the link above). There's a strictly practical view here.

In short, these packages are about hierarchical knowledge structures. As Tufte points out in relation to the NASA Challenger disaster enquiry, the presentation template allowed for six levels of detail. So the enquiry team followed that default model, and missed the point because it didn't fit--the package did not readily accommodate (the mot juste) impact from bottom to top as much as from top to bottom.

I'm interested in Prezi, as an alternative to powerpoint (I concede the term has achieved default status like "hoover" and "xerox", so the "tm" stuff is pointless) but its zoom structure is still based on hierarchy, and it's not easy to create a pan-and-zoom display which neither induces nausea, nor attracts attention to itself to the detriment of the content. Nevertheless, its general approach of offering a large (pretty well infinite) virtual canvas, which can be examined in greater and greater detail--and then in broader and broader context, so that relations between material are clear--is promising.

C-map tools, which can also be persuaded to work as a presentation package--although the process is not exactly intuitive--is good at presenting connected components of an argument. The nodes are simple labels, but the connections invite labels by default, such as A implies B,  or C includes D.  However, it is the least flexible package in terms of the incorporation of any other media or external material.

The presentation as part of a system 

When I use a presentation in a live lecture, it is of course subordinate to the address itself, which carries the burden of the argument. I may choose to put it on line, or distribute a handout based on it, but it does not stand alone; it is a gloss on a verbal event.

Of course that is why simply making your slides available on the VLE is pretty useless. In most cases they just do not make sense as they stand. The same tends to be true of handouts. We often sort-of acknowledge this, and make the slides ever more verbose and comprehensive so that they will make stand-alone sense--but in so doing we make them less effective as a supporting act for the lecture. We end up reading out verbatim the content of the slides (often facing the screen to do so and thus turning our backs to the class)... Yuch!

Everything in teaching, including syllabi, schemes of work, session plans, presentations, exercises, assessments, evaluations... Everything needs to be considered as part of, and interacting with, the rest of the teaching and learning system. So everything needs to be modified according to its place in the system.
  • (One of my least pleasant experiences in thirty-five years of teaching in colleges and universities occurred this summer, when, for reasons which are neither fully understood nor relevant, but which were clearly motivated by disproportionate vitriolic animus, a kangaroo court was mounted under the guise of an "internal review" of a course with which I had a long-standing relationship. The part of this which most clearly affected me was the "critique" of the course handbook, which I have edited for fifteen years, and indeed the only outcome of this review process [rant deleted...] was an annotated Word file of the handbook demanding more than two hundred revisions [including, I concede, some useful observations--perhaps five of them.] The supposed justification was variation from the formal quality assurance template. But the handbook is for students. Their concerns are different from QA mavens. [And incidentally, the handbook had been commended by QAA and Ofsted and the external examiners, and even the university's head of quality assurance, as a model of its kind.])
  • Sorry! But the comprehensible part of the dispute can be attributed in part to the assumption by QA obsessives that everyone needs to be told the same thing in the same way at the same level of detail... An insistence on (too many) absolute (and potentially incompatible) values distorts the system. (The same mistake may lead to the collapse of the euro. I did try warning them in the late '90s, but no-one was listening...)
Back at the important stuff! If I post the material on a blog or SlideShare or the VLE, even with podcast support, the burden of the argument is borne by the visuals. If you have looked at the page where all this started, you will have seen that my solution (for which I make no great claims--I am sure there are better ones), is to include explanatory call-outs on most pages which at least hint at what I said in person at the live event.

Forms of knowledge and media for presentation

As the presentation in question touches on, I'm renewing my interest in the distinction Hudson articulated in 1966, between convergent and divergent thinkers. I've revisited the original account, in which he discusses testing the intelligence of schoolboys (forgive the dated expression):
"Initially I had hoped, [...] that open-ended tests would cut across the arts/science distinction, and give some reflection of boys' brightness; of their level, in other words, rather than their bias. The results were a surprise. Far from cutting across the arts/science distinction, the open-ended tests provided one of my best correlates of it. Most arts specialists, weak at the IQ tests, were much better at the open-ended ones; most scientists were the reverse. Arts specialists are on the whole divergers, physical scientists convergers. Between three and four divergers go into arts subjects like history, English literature and modern languages for every one that goes into physical science. And, vice versa, between three and four convergers do mathematics, physics and chemistry for every one that goes into the arts. As far as one can tell from the samples available, classics belong with physical science, while biology, geography, economics, and general arts courses attract convergers and divergers in roughly equal proportions." (Hudson, 1966: 42. My emphasis.)
It is, I concede, principally on the basis of this (and similar) passage(s) that I argue that convergence and divergence are not primarily attributes of people but of disciplines. The distinction is epistemological rather than psychological (on balance, of course; like all these constructs it's a bit of both. And the issue of match between discipline and learner makes a difference. And I bow to Jim Hamlyn's point about the plethora of categories of knowledge...)

It's not a particularly original step to argue that different disciplines call for different pedagogies, but the proliferation of technologies now poses new questions about what suits what. I got into this in a minor way, years ago, when the options were limited (here). The questions are still more important than the answers. In relation to the session I started this reflection from, you can see the resulting revision and make your own judgement about what I got right and what wrong...

But that is the wrong question...
  • What did this approach to presentation "privilege" (emphasise) or "deprecate" (play down)? 
  • How did the choice of this medium affect the power-balance in the room? 
  • How would the choice of any other method/medium have covertly affected the expectations/experience of the participants? 
  • How seriously would they nowadays take a presenter who walked in with no notes and just occasionally wrote a keyword or drew on a flip chart--although she could be much more responsive to the group*? **
  • What difference does it make how handouts are handled (no, there is no universal rule)?
Enough. Bottom line: Media, methods*** and content all influence and constrain each other in an elaborate dance. You can't (or at least shouldn't) treat any element in isolation. But the conventional theories of pedagogy don't help. Ask the questions, and develop your own answers.

*  There's another rub. To what extent do your class members identify with the class group? Does "responding to the group" largely mean going along with the louder members' concerns, regardless of their self-appointed status...

** There'll be more on the bottom-line of this in a different context, in a day or two...

*** This post has been deliberately conservative about "methods", partly because the original stimulus concerned a very conventional seminar presentation, but more because even that was very complex under the surface, and I wanted the post to make at least some semblance of sense.

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