In the past several years, I have developed a deep and intimate loathing of PowerPoint. Don’t judge me just yet – I have my reasons. To be honest, I understand the appeal of PowerPoint. It’s a quick and easy way to get your point across using text and photos. I get it. But it’s just so hard to create an interesting PowerPoint presentation that most of them bore me to tears.
More than this, though, is that I’ve met a lot of teachers who use PowerPoint as their only tech integration tool. Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate when any teacher tries to integrate technology, in any way. I just feel that PowerPoint is a somewhat misguided stab at this.
At its core, what’s the point of tech integration? I would argue that it isn’t to teach students how to use a single tool – any tool we teach kids to use now will most likely be obsolete by the time they enter the workforce. But just like we don’t teach students to read every book they’ll ever encounter, we don’t need to teach them to use every tech tool they’ll ever encounter. Rather, we need to teach them the skills – the grammar, the phonics – that will allow them to navigate the tech tools they will eventually use.
So what’s the grammar of technology? I would argue that one of the main skills of the 21st century is expressing your ideas compellingly, portraying a unique voice in a world of billions of voices. For most kids, PowerPoint doesn’t allow them to do this. It’s basically Word with less text on each page. If you put your average student’s PowerPoint presentation online, it likely won’t get more than a dozen hits. But it’s not entirely the fault of our students. We need to give them tools to truly express themselves, uniquely.
If we’re going to integrate technology, let’s really do it. Let’s teach students to create compelling, multi-media presentations that get noticed. If your students can do this with PowerPoint, more power to you. But at the end of the day, there are some presentation tools that blow PowerPoint out of the water. And many of them are even easier to use.
My friend, Jen, showed me Prezi three weeks ago and, within two days, I was wowing my bosses with a Prezi presentation. This week, I’ll be training my entire department’s staff on using it. When you have the choice of Prezi or PowerPoint, there really is no competition in my mind – Prezi is like PowerPoint on steroids.
For years, I’ve been trying to get teachers away from PowerPoint, but their only alternatives were time-consuming complex programs like iMovie. Prezi, however, is quick, easy, and, better still, FREE.
Prezi is a Web-based tool, so there’s nothing to download. You create an account, and all your presentations are stored online, so you can access them from any computer with an Internet connection (you also have the option to download your presentations). Rather than individual slides, you build a Prezi on a single, infinitely large workspace. You can zoom in and out of specific slides, videos, photos, or text to take your audience through your presentation. It’s great for showing the big picture (i.e., a large timeline) and then zooming in on all the details. The motion and the ease of integrating multimedia are what make Prezis so compelling.
Here’s the creation and presentation of a simple Prezi in just three minutes:
Anyone can create a free Prezi account, but then your presentations are publicly accessible. There are also “Enjoy” and “Pro” membership options for a fee. Luckily, the Enjoy upgrade is FREE for teachers and students (you just need an e-mail address that’s connected to a school or district Web site).
Glogster has been around for a while, and it’s gaining a lot of popularity in schools, from Kindergarten to Master’s programs. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a Web-based tool that allows you to easily create multi-media posters called “glogs.” Users can design glogs with their own style, so students can express their individual voices while still communicating what they’ve learned.
Glogs are great because they’re displayed much like single, self-contained Web pages. They’re a lot easier to build than Web pages, so some teachers even make them, with videos and links, to guide students through an assignment.
Glogster is so fun to use that a lot of middle schoolers glog outside of school (there are a ton dedicated to Twilight’s Edward).
Glogster is FREE to use, but there’s also a FREE GlogsterEDU. Rather than having each student create their own account, GlogsterEDU allows teachers to register and monitor their entire class from a single teacher account.
One warning: Be sure that your students save their glogs often. Some users get confused because rather than a “save” button, Glogster only has a “save and publish” button. Make sure your students click this often – they can still edit their glog, and if they don’t “save and publish,” they could lose hours of work.
I wrote a bit about digital storytelling in my blog post Use What Their Mamas Gave ‘Em: Students Cell Phones in Education. But there are some other digital storytelling tools that might be good substitutes for PowerPoint. This is especially true if you have shy students who would prefer to create a stand-alone presentation that doesn’t require them to present in front of the class.
In the cell phone post, I wrote about student-created videos, podcasts, and slideshows. Those require some time and hardware, but there are a lot of Web-based tools that allow students to create similar presentations more simply.
- Blabberize is a great tool for students researching a specific animal or historic figure. They can upload a picture of their topic, then record a first-person account of that animal or person, and make it appear as though the photo is speaking.
- With voicethread, students can upload an image, document, or video and then record their own narration. Other students can then add narration, comments, or questions to the original presentation.
Anyone can get a single FREE voicethread account. Teachers can get more features for a one-time $10 fee or a classroom account (where you can monitor all your students) for $60 per year.
Some students communicate facts best when they’re allowed to create a story. For example, some teachers have students create their own public service announcements to communicate information about recycling or littering. Other teachers ask students to perform skits that illustrate historic events or important scenes in literary classics.
All of this can be accomplished with free Web tools, as well. That’s not to say that these tools should always replace PSAs or skits. But they allow students to create similar products individually and quickly. Some teachers might prefer to give students a choice – those who express themselves better verbally can choose to perform a skit, while more shy or tech-savvy students might choose to create a film with one of these tools:
- Xtranormal’s motto is “If you can type, you can make movies.” And that’s exactly what this FREE tool allows students to do. You can use xtranormal as a Web-based tool or you can download a software version to your computers. Either way, students choose pre-made cartoon characters, type in a script (in any number of languages), select movements for each character, and press play. What they create looks something like this:
- GoAnimate is a more customized FREE cartoon-making tool. It’s a bit more complex, but students can create more personalized cartoons by creating their own drag-and-drop characters and using their own voices.
- I used to have students use Comic Life on our school Macbooks for some presentations. But now, teachers don’t need Macs or even any software at all to use comics in class. Pixton is a click-and-drag comic creator that’s FREE for anyone. (You can also pay for a school account.)
Lesson Integration Ideas
Subjects: English Language Arts and Science
Objective: The student will be able to
- research and report on a topic;
- understand that different animals live in different places and have body parts that they use for different purposes.
At some point in every child’s early elementary years, they do a research report on an animal. Wouldn’t it be great if these kids could express their own personality in these reports and share them with the world?
With blabberize, they can. Students can write a research report on an animal, as always, but, rather than reading the report to the class, they can upload a photo of the animal to blabberize and then make the photo talk. Students can act as the animal and record a first-person narration that includes animal facts.
Middle School Classroom
Objective: The student will be able to illustrate the transfer of energy through a food web.
When I taught fifth-grade science, energy flowcharts, food chains, and food webs were a large part of my class. Students each had their own terrarium or aquarium, and they each created food webs for the living things inside. This became a difficult task because, as we learned more about the things inside our bottle ecosystems, students wanted to add to their food webs. They soon ran out of room.
With Prezi, though, students can create enormous food webs that an audience can view from afar. Then, students can zoom in on each section of the food web and provide more details about the animal or plant represented there. The food webs can be made more interesting with the inclusion of photos and videos (possibly some taken by students).
High School Classroom
Subject: Foreign Languages
Objective: The student will be able to
- understand and explain cultural differences between their home country and a foreign country;
- write fluently in a foreign language;
- hold common conversations in a foreign language.
Often, foreign language classes have students present on customs or traditions of foreign countries. Xtranormal gives students a chance to practice their written communication, as well. Students can type a foreign-language script into the program, and it will be converted to a movie scene.
Students can use the program to create scenarios exemplifying local customs or traditions. These short foreign-language films can serve as intros to larger presentations or as tutorials for students at lower linguistic levels.