Is PowerPoint Destroying ELearning?

ppt-stinks-jpgI was messing around with Articulate Storyline and found myself wondering: are the popular rapid elearning development tools being held captive by the learning industry’s past?

Don’t get me wrong, the major players all have very nice and robust offerings. Every year they are adding new features, which is great, but at the same time these new features are all built upon the same foundation – and in many cases this foundation is Microsoft PowerPoint.

Funny enough, it seems like most elearning courses can be traced back to PowerPoint in some capacity. Heck, most of them allow you to import PowerPoint. But does using PowerPoint as the base for our learning pigeon-hole us into thinking about learning from a PowerPoint perspective? You know what I mean: Linear. Bullet points. Display mode. Slides. Clipart.

It just seems… lacking.

This industry seems poised for some major disruption. Someone who can come in and buck the status quo, to make instructional designers forget about PowerPoint for a second and focus on learning that doesn’t live by the same PowerPoint rules. Learning is dynamic and flexible – so should be the tools and thought processes we have when creating it.

PowerPoint is just fine for many situations, yet “death by PowerPoint” is still creeping into elearning. A tool that can remove these walls, and prevent us from getting dizzy (I’m looking at you Prezi) will have an uphill battle, but if marketed properly, could have a profound impact on the entire rapid course development industry.

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About the Author:

Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by the world's leading organizations, such as the University of Michigan, Digital Marketer, WPEngine, and Infusionsoft. Justin has made a career as an elearning consultant where he has implemented large-scale training programs for Fortune 500 companies. Twitter | LinkedIn

28 Comments
  1. Chris Bergeron

    I loved the post. I’m currently studying distance education and often think the same thing.. eLearnig has so much potential but if all we do is to mass distribute “death by PowerPoint” I think that is just sad. And I’m horribly guilty myself as I try and earn extra cash through developing eLearnig I want to do more..

    I don’t know, I liked what you mentioned about the field being ready for a disruption, I’m excited to find out what that might end up being.

  2. Bo Sosnicki

    Well PowerPoint is the king of online learning because everyone has it and it is cheap….publishers of every textbook you have will give you a plethora of PowerPoint presentations of all shapes and sizes to dump into your online class.

    Yes we would all like this to change because …how any students actually use these? Probably very few and they do not get much out of them since they are just outlines really to be used for your on campus lecture.

    What would be better….modifying and narrating those PowerPoint presentations would be better, but in 6 months they will change the textbook edition and you have to start all over.

    Do schools pay us to be creative and build our classes as we would like them to be? No, they usually tell me go ahead and design and construct a course in this LMS and we will let you teach that class.

    I have gone out and built some of my own mini lectures on video, narrated PowerPoints, etc. but there is just not enough time in the day since now as full-time online adjuncts we have to work at 10 schools to get enough work to pay the bills.

    Especially since classes are being cut due to the health care bill came out….

    Bo

  3. Bravo to you for saying this–we are so power point dependent. This technology, much like the interactive white board, keeps us in an instructor-centered classroom that has well worn out it’s welcome.

    So, how can we shift? 🙂

  4. Kathleen Le Dain

    I think the answer is devoting more time and creative energy to scriptwriting. PowerPoint isn’t bad as a basic presentation tool, but it’s easy to fall into the default bullet point structure. The problem is that not many people think in bullet points. We need to be creative about how we present information and tell our stories. This often means using a different kind of story line that’s not always logical or linear.

  5. Allain McCallum

    It’s not really ever the fault of the tool that is to blame, tools are tools. We pick one up because it helps us do a job.

    If you are a carpenter, and you only ever learn how to use a hammer, you can’t really stand there and moan that hammers are ruining the building industry and we are so limited by the use of hammers, but we choose to continue to try and make hammers work because everyone has one and knows how to use it to some extent.

    There area ton of resources out there…Prezi included. Many of those resources can and do play well with others, and the things that can be created and done are really only limited by the imagination and creativity of the Instructional Designer. So lets be brave, reach for a screwdriver, drill, or crosscut saw. Figure out what the job is that you need to do. Find a tool that does that job well, then practise with the tool until you are proficient, and take some training in the use of the tool so you master it. Knowledge is power and you will own that forever.

    Thank you PowerPoint for being there and giving me a place to start from, and to the authoring tools that allow me to build on that foundation as I learn to expand my offering, and to people like Justin who pose the questions, stimulate the discussion and force our mind to move out of the comfort zone.

    • Nico G

      I love the analogy of the hammer. I do believe that PowerPoint has given us an excellent base and the answer lies in our creativity and innovation.

    • Zubeida Kudoos

      Great point, Allain! If a building turns out to be functional and beautiful, it’s because of the architect and construction team, not just the tools they use. PowerPoint is a great starting point, and it’s ture capabilities are actually under used. I recently used PPT for a Pension’s virtual class session. Only one slide has bullet points. The rest of the class requires the participants to discuss their knowledge gaps of pensions, complete mini assessments, and provide feedback to the many questions asked by the facilitator. It is learner-centred, and they are the ones who direct the facilitator to ensure the content being discussed is relevant to them,

  6. JRA

    I call BS. Sure PPT lacks some rich elements, but those can be inserted with other tools. PPT is a blank canvas, lazy people do bad, sometimes very bad things with it.

    • JRA hits the nail on the head. Ever since Tufte pointed out the literal dangers of PowerPoint for the Challenger disaster, and the Gettysburg Address has been converted to PowerPoint, there has really been no excuse for bad presentations other than content providers/deliverers being too lazy to do something nice. And I don’t mean just adding a drop shadow to your clip art either (although that helps a tiny bit). while Tom Kuhlmann has spent his time promoting Articulate, the fact is, he builds a lot of his e-Learning using tools in PowerPoint first. There is no reason instructors can’t design purpose-built PowerPoints to function on their own with the same design elements.

      But that then gets to the root of the problem – are most people who use PowerPoint actually interested in design or do they just want to convey content? I went to Denny’s with a friend who does web design and he asked us if we thought it weird that he knows the name of every font used on all the signage at the restaurant. As fellow designers, we did not. I’m sure a group of content-providers would have disagreed with us. So unless one has a mindset and a natural bent for design, it makes no difference what the tool is, they will continue to use it badly.

      Or to phrase it from another perspective, i had a conversation with a photographer about people who admire his work and ask him what camera he uses. He laughs because they think that if they possess the same piece of equipment they will magically understand composition, lighting, shutter speed, depth of field, and all the rest. The fault is not PowerPoint. it is the lack of skill or effort or even interest on the part of those using the tool to do so in a diligent manner.

  7. Thank you Justin for initiating all this great dialogue!
    Whether or not PowerPoint is used to actually develop e-learning, its screen-based nature can help other members of our project teams (subject matter experts, business leaders, etc.) to envision what a course will look like online. E-learning is, after all, more similar to PPT slides than it is to paper-based materials.
    What we do with the “screens” – whether we use games, video, animations, etc. – is where the creativity comes in.
    Once we’ve planned our design, the consideration then turns to efficiency: What is the most efficient way to get the course through its pre-development review cycles, and what is the most efficient way to develop and publish the final course? If the answer is spring-boarding off a PPT – great. But if not, we need to adapt our design processes to facilitate a smooth project workflow from kick-off to conclusion.

  8. You can never underestimate the power of a simple, inexpensive solution. While powerPoint has its limitations, it is a simple and inexpensive way to quickly create and convey learning content.

  9. Kimberly Chisholm

    Thank you, Justin, for bringing this up. I have used Captivate and Articulate to develop content, and I use PowerPoint daily as part of my development process. I find it to be an extremely useful tool, and for those who know how to use it, it can also be very powerful. I think a large part of the reason that “Death by PowerPoint” happens so often is because of other people’s misconceptions and fear of change.

    I have converted an entire course curriculum from boring, lifeless lectures to interactive, engaging content (not just click-through), only to have the stakeholders call me back a year later to heave me change the entire curriculum to a “new look and feel” — they wanted static slides with bullets and narration. Their reasoning: They felt their people were confused by the content and couldn’t be bothered with all that clicking! They were absolutely positive that their “new” approach was the better way to go, no matter how hard I tried convince them otherwise.

    This is an extreme example, but I’ve encountered the same sort of fear of change in many organizations, along with a misconception that all e-leaning is just “glorified PowerPoints”, which leads to unrealistic expectations where deadlines are concerned. I don’t think the tool is the problem. I think the attitudes around how it is used for e-learning are the root of problem.

  10. Gerry Bowler

    Hi Justin

    My feeling is just a bit different.

    Unfortunatly Power Point has a stigma attached to it. ‘Power Point Poisoning’, ‘Death by Power Point’ are just two of the many labels that it is hard for this software to shake off. Power Point is a very capable development tool, and I have no problem producing highly dynamic e-Learning material that includes Video, Audio, Animated talking avatars and unlimited branching capability. Using a very acurate conversion tool like iSping that can convert to Scorm complient Flash and HTML, and you have a good solid solution.

    No disrespect, but I have seen some very bad Power Point based material that has been produced by developers who certainly don’t use power point to its full capability, and I suspect have limited creative ability.

    I have used much more complicated software, for example Adobe Director. This path was taken many years ago when Power Point did indeed have severe limitations. I now find I use Director less and less as Power Point has improved. The result from either software will be just as bad in the hands of someone who has limited capability.

    Good tools help, but the end result is depends on the creativity of the developer.

    Kind Regards
    Gerry

  11. Krista Mallory

    I found this article last year, and it’s appropos for this discussion. The problem isn’t that we use PowerPoint, it’s how it forces us to simplify for the sake of the tool. While I totall agree that you can’t blame the tool, it has become the accepted medium for everything from presenting complex financial information to elearning to brief introductions to policy. Sometimes it doesn’t fit, and trying to make it do so is akin to using the claw end of the hammer to build something (to go back to that analogy). It’ll work, but it will be clumsy and never feel just right.

    Just another train of thought!

    Krista

  12. Michael Gough

    I agree that a tool can have a major impact on design decisions, but I don’t think PowerPoint like designed software has caused more harm than good. Creating eLearning from scratch using HTML or Flash is a daunting task, especially for a larger project. If you are on your own, your content might be out of date by the time you complete the project. The Storylines and Captivates out there allow you to develop much quicker. Yes, they use slides, and animations in a similar way to PowerPoint, but they do cut down the development time and the learning curve to make meaningful eLearning. If you can go into a project knowing the influences of the tool, you can find ways to overcome the pitfalls by creating interactive slides, branching, and even adding a simple game to make the learning more interesting.

  13. I agree with so many of your comments and am of the view that Powerpoint is one of those tools that can be viewed both half full and half empty. Having said that, I’ve had the opportunity recently to experiment with a whole new approach which we are calling crowd-accelerated Interactive learning.

    The basic concept is to integrate into self-paced or facilitated learning environments (Powerpoint based or any other) opportunities for virtual ‘socratic’ questioning and participative reflection. Feedback from initial pilots through the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Center for Leadership and Research are suggesting that this new learning modality is enabling not just more engaged and stickier learning, but also thinking that is at a much deeper level with higher quality inputs and more creative ideas shared.

    My initial thoughts are that this innovation would be ideal for a whole raft of soft skills leadership training areas as well as sales enablement training, change management communications, corporate values/philosophy/strategic plan messaging and new employee on-boarding to name a few. – In fact, any place where ‘feedback’ and the sharing of ideas is desired. However, as Kimberly has so rightly stated, to make it works requires some ‘attitude adjustments’ that may well be really scary to some folks i.e. do management teams really want feedback!!!

  14. David Dowdle

    There is absolutely nothing wrong in using Powerpoint in an ‘e-Learning capacity – it is just a tool as is any other e-Learning software. Granted it has fewer facilities than more ‘higher end’ software, but these are simply tools also. Powerpoint is not linear if you do not want it to be, it just takes more time to make it so. As for bullet points, I have yet to hear any acceptable reason from so called ‘gurus’ as to why they are not to be used. What is the difference between:

    * Point 1
    * Point 2
    * point 3
    and,

    Point 1
    Point 2
    Point 3

    It is how the presenter/presentation uses these key points, not the bullets. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes – one guru coined the phrase and everyone followed in order to be seen as just as pedagogically competent. I have not a clue about what you mean by ‘display mode’, it can be displayed just as can any other tool – via projector, PC, laptop, mobile (though again this is time consuming and requires PPT for Mobiles which is only Windows phone based.). And, finally there are hundreds of thousands of clip art images so you will always find something useable though perhaps not as suitable or of as high a quality as bespoke images, but bespoke costs money.

    Money is the major problem in my opinion. In the standard Time/Cost/Quality benchmark, if you do not have enough time then quality suffers, if you have the time to produce high quality e-Learning it will cost you a lot of money, etc.

    In summary Powerpoint is just software that produces e-Learning at a comparably cheap cost but of a lower quality (in terms of interaction, engagement, multiple pathways, media rich, etc.) than more expensive, time consuming, alternatives. It’s just a tool and it’s what we can do with it is perhaps its limitation.

  15. jason sanders

    This was a nice advert for Prezi but I still love PowerPoint with Adobe add on’s. When I calaborate with the content everyone knows thw software and what it can do. Im afraid it does exactly what it says on the tin. delivers what you need.

    I would ask is Prezi here to stay or is it a fad will it fade away.

  16. Giles

    Horses for courses. There is nothing wrong with powerpoint to communicate a linear story. However that is not always the best way to learn. Sometimes learners need to step up to a higher level view, sometimes dive down into the detail, sometimes to make choices as to which way to go next. All that can be done in powerpoint (although it is easier in Prezi {and, just because you can, there is no need to rotate every frame!}).

    To my mind, the fundamental problem is that teachers want to proscribe what learners learn, rather than facilitate exploration of a rich, complex landscape where every learner can choose their own path. And that is because too many teachers, for whatever reason, are more concerned about demonstrating the value of their teaching, rather than delighting in the glory of the learning of learners.

  17. Andy

    I have been using Powerspoint for years and love it. When a I lecture in a class setting, I use Powerpont, yet my instructor feedback is always 9 or 10 out of 10. Seems to me PowePoint is a great tool, like any tool it needs an operator that has skilled. I just purchased LesrnDash today to create our first elearning class. I have spent the last two weeks creating the slides in PowerPoint. Looking over the documentation today it does not seem very easy to import these slides into LearnDash. You can obviously create the slides one at a time, but why should have to recreate all these slides? Then I found this post and am wondering if I purchased the wrong LMS Plugin for our purpose. Where can I find directions on how to import the PowerPoint slides into LearnDash?? I only know WordPress at a very basic level.

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