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Avoiding Death by PowerPoint - Ryan Walmsley
October 11, 2011

Avoiding Death by PowerPoint - Ryan Walmsley

Abraham Maslow provided the educational community with two things that have continued to shape our perceptions. The first is his eponymous hierarchy of needs, which has taught us that students will be less motivated to learn if they are starving, or traumatized, or experiencing difficulty forging meaningful relationships. His second gift was his admonition against overusing familiar devices. In The Psychology of Science, he famously stated that "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" (1966).

Microsoft PowerPoint is a hammer. It's a fairly basic tool; a real classic. It's been around for a quarter century, and hasn't deviated far from the 60-year old slideshow technology it mimics. It belongs in your "digital toolbox," but it shouldn't be the only tool in that collection.

But that's the only tool in my collection!

Sometimes, you might be stuck with PowerPoint; you're in a class with no Internet connection; you're team-teaching, and your colleague insists on using it; it's the only thing that works on your class computers. Fine. You can still escape the trap of watching your students lull the class to sleep by facing the screen and reading bulleted paragraphs verbatim. Try applying any of the following rules:
  • Limit the number of words per slide. (Try ten, five or one.)
  • Ban words from the slides altogether. Use full-screen pictures only.
  • Lower the number of slides and time permitted for each, e.g. 6 slides @ 20 seconds each = a snappy, 2-minute presentation. The Pecha Kucha foundation, for instance, uses the 20 X 20 format to great effect.
You may, of course, try out these strategies with all or parts of your own presentations.

Expand your toolbox.

The problem is that PowerPoint makes it easy to create dreary and ugly presentations (when the presentation becomes a substitute for the presenter), and the program seems to fit snugly in everyone's comfort zone.

However, you may eventually tire of the "hammer" and its limitations. If you're not limited to PowerPoint, but still want to incorporate technology-assisted presentations in your classroom, there are other solid options out there. Finding viable alternatives to PowerPoint is as simple as googling "alternatives to PowerPoint," but here are two specific choices for you to consider.


Pixton is an online comic-strip creator. It allows users to quickly construct a panel of slides, and add characters and text. Pixton has many advanced options for detailed scenes, interactions, characters and expressions, but still makes it easy to construct a basic strip with a minimal of fuss. It took roughly three minutes for me to create the following comic:

It should be clear that A) I should not quit my day job to aspire to become a syndicated comic artist, and B) Pixton offers students (and teachers) some simple and creative options that are not available in PowerPoint. Pixton is free, but requires a quick registration. It has advanced features which are available for an additional fee, but the basic site allows more than enough functionality for students (or teachers) to create quality storyboards which can then be sent as an internet URL, or saved in picture format.


Glogster is an online poster-creation site, although this is a gross overgeneralization. Given that this free services allows users to insert text, pictures, links, audio, and video from other websites, or from their computer, or recorded live, Glogster's potential is truly massive. The output looks like a production-quality, static poster, but the "wow" factor is that all of these features harness the interactive power of the web. Students can post "zoomable" pictures, have musical or spoken/recorded background audio, embed videos right on the page, and create attractive headings and text areas. The result is the potential for far more content than initially meets the eye, and way more functionality than a hardcopy poster. Here are four examples that show Glogster's range:

  1.  - A straightforward, but elegant poster (on pronunciation)
  2. - A teacher's "portal page" with links pointing to practice activities
  3. - A student project on global English
  4. - A student project on hockey's impact on Canada

Glogster is free, but requires a quick registration.

Questions to consider

  1. Do you often impose rules on (student/instructor) PowerPoint presentations to avoid presentation malaise? How is that working for you?
  2. Have you had any success with slideshow alternatives?
Ryan Walmsley teaches ESL at Fanshawe College. One of his academic interests is making technology work for people (instead of the other way around).
Filed under: Teaching Tips


On Friday, January 6, 2012, Shari White said
Hi Ryan, Great stuff on Powerpoint. I'm going to try out your sites.


On Tuesday, November 22, 2011, Kristibeth Kelly said
I have to admit that I'm a PPT junkie. I just checked out Pixton though and am going to get my students to use it tomorrow. It looks great. Thanks, Ryan!


On Thursday, October 13, 2011, Jen Artan said
Have to admit, I had to look up "eponymous"... I use ppt, sparingly... I'm lucky to have a smartboard in my classroom. Will definitely look into the sites you suggest. Great ideas Ryan.


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