Training and PowerPoint go hand-in-hand in many training centers. As many training centers moved from classroom-based to distributed, the standard PowerPoint presentation made the journey as well. Although many groups have developed standards for online training, a huge element of online learning still consists of PowerPoint slides dropped onto a server. Some organizations provide a PowerPoint file with detailed notes on the presentation, while others narrate the presentation. Do these qualify as e-learning?
Online PowerPoint is e-learning, if not in theory then at least in practice. Narrated PowerPoint really isn’t something a company should showcase as online training. It’s not snazzy, jazzy, or ideal. PowerPoint is largely linear in nature and not all that different than standard instructor-led training. You are taking advantage of the ability to deliver a consistent message independent of time and location, but you aren’t delivering cutting-edge learning. Training centers use online PowerPoint for a number of reasons – lack of time or funds to develop truly rich, interactive e-learning being the most common.
Training & PowerPoint
Microsoft’s PowerPoint has been a staple of the training center since it’s release in May 1990. The usefulness and efficacy of PowerPoint is often debated by training theorists. How many times have trainers heard and / or used the term “Death by PowerPoint”? The term was originally coined by Angela Garber in an article for Small Business Computing. (Garber, 2001). The primary criticism of the software is that ideas must be simplified, condensed or otherwise modified in order to have them fit on a readable slide.
Edward Tufte, in a blog article reviewing slides presented between the launch and demise of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, makes three key points:
- Critical information was demoted to the lowest bullet points;
- The compacted nature of the slides led to generalizations and acronyms rather than specific, technical description; and
- PowerPoint was very limited in it’s ability to display scientific language and measurements.
Tufte concludes that PowerPoint is good for presenting visual reinforcement of a written document, especially for a technically complex document. How does that relate back to the pre-PowerPoint days? Trainers had to carefully prepare and select images to be recorded on slides. The purpose of the slide was to reinforce what the presenter was saying. One of the benefits of using PowerPoint in an online environment is that it allows the instructional designer the latitude to focus on the message using narration in lieu of the live presenter. Unlike a live presenter, narration provides a consistent message that can be repeated by the end user.
PowerPoint is a perfectly acceptable method of delivering training information for some online topics. A simple online search returns many articles eschewing “rules” for visual presentations; these rules may govern font size, suggest font choices, recommend a number of slides, etc. Simply put, these may be good resources but above all, the presentation must be visually appealing, professional appearing, and supportive of learning outcomes. Unlike the traditional classroom where the instructor is the speaker and the PowerPoint is a tool, with online deliver the PowerPoint becomes both the delivery agent and the visual aid. The presentation is what the instructional designer has to say about the topic. The presentation slides were called visual aids in the past – the displayed information is there to reinforce and strengthen the message, not replace it.
There are a number of published standards for the development and integration of training for the online environment. One of the most popular is the sharable content object reference model, SCORM. Another popularly referenced standard is the Aviation Industry Computer-based training Committee (AICC) standard. Both of these allow an instructional designer to deliver complex material to students, and have extensive tracking and reporting of student interaction. These standards have been in place for a number of years and are widely supporting by authoring packages.
When developing for e-learning, be sure to avoid common mistakes.
That’s great for companies developing high-level fee-for-service training and firms with expansive corporate universities. But what about teaching the simpler concepts? Are branching scenarios really critical in the delivery of an electrical safety awareness training online? Even with software such as Adobe Captivate, branching scenarios and media-rich online programs are resource-intensive. What are the expectations of a student who is paying a premium fee for an online certification course, compared to the operations staff completing a required OSHA-compliance course?
Some specific instructional design characteristics where a narrated PowerPoint might be appropriate include:
- When there is a separate method in place for assessing knowledge, skill and ability
- When new or updated information on a topic already well-known to the student is being presented.
- When the information being presented is principally administrative or procedural (i.e., without a hands-on component).
Training centers often cite the need to do traditional classroom training as a reason for keeping PowerPoint as a base. Authoring tools such as Adobe Captivate can usually generate an executable file that can be used for classroom presentations by an instructor as well.
Taking Your PowerPoint Online
If you find a case where the best option for a training program is conversion of an existing PowerPoint presentation for online delivery, there are some simple ways to improve the student experience.
- Deliver the PowerPoint as a finished product. In other words, display the presentation embedded in a web browser window. Avoid forcing students to download the presentation onto their computer if at all possible. Downloading presents all kinds of problems – for example, what happens with embedded audio and video files.
- Include narrated audio as part of the presentation. The narrated audio should include more depth than simply reading the on-screen content. Select a variety of individuals, both male and female, to be narrators for classes. Select people that sound casual and relaxed, that speak clearly. Use a quality microphone, positioned properly (normally 8-10″ away), and use a script.
- Use images, diagrams, and video elements to support the information presented by the narrator. Remember, when using PowerPoint for online coursework the presentation is both the visual aid and the delivery agent.
- Use PowerPoint’s native features to encourage student activity. Consider using the 1 to 1-1-1 concept; for every bullet slide, use 1 graphic slide, 1 audio/narrated slide, and 1 interactive slide. These don’ t always have to be complex; they simply need to appeal to the multiple student learning preferences. An easy way to build interaction is to use an on-screen clickable object to advance slides. Even though the standard mouse click and page down buttons will still work, the visual cue and interaction builds engagement.
- Provide a separate, downloadable PDF reference document for the topic. Reference PDF’s should have enough information to be useful, but should NOT be a replacement for a student’s having viewed the presentation.
For more tips about rapidly developing e-learning courses, see here.
The Future of Training: PowerPoint vs. E-Learning
Training managers and instructional designers should always be looking to improve their training. Consider online PowerPoint an interim solution and begin laying out long-term plans to move courses to a true e-learning platform as time and resources permit. The process involved with developing true e-learning is often very beneficial to an organization and increases buy-in to training across the board.
Garber, A. “Death By Powerpoint”. Small Business Computing.com. April 2001.
Tufte, Edward (09/06/2005). “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science–and Better Techniques for Technical Reports”. Retrieved 04/15/2013.