Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Power Corrupts, Powerpoint Corrupts Absolutely!

A recent survey showed that a large number of companies use Powerpoint for training purposes. This should not come as a big surprise given that the mighty Microsoft has practically destroyed all other presentation software alternatives. I believe that Powerpoint is a great presentation tool but not suited as a development tool for online training. It works well for instructor-led training because the instructor does all the work and the slides just help guide the flow. Unfortunately, because Powerpoint is widely used for instructor-led training, a number of organizations have extended its use for online training. This article describes the many reasons why I think Powerpoint is not suited to online learning and what I believe are key aspects of a good online learning solution.

Why Powerpoint is Not Suitable for Online Learning

Presentation vs. Training: Firstly, Powerpoint is a presentation tool and not a training tool. Hence, there is usually not much detailed content in a Powerpoint file. In fact, a presentation with a lot of detail is usually frowned upon. A presentation with limited content serves as a great supplement to a talk, but cannot be used in lieu of the talk itself. In other words, if you take a bunch of slides, slap audio on to it, and serve it as online learning, you can be certain that it won't result in effective learning!

Presentation without the Presenter: A presenter using Powerpoint slides uses bullet points in the slide to guide the flow of the talk. A presenter usually provides additional content verbally or in response to specific questions from the audience. With PowerPoint, you cannot provide the additional resources like a glossary, links to other web sites, other resources that the learner can access, and so on. Instead you have to create a separate slide for this purpose. Thus, to provide the slides to a person (or derivatives with pre-recorded voice-overs) and to expect that individual to be trained using that material is a completely misplaced expectation. Moreover, to restrict the user to a presentation format without the presence of the presenter is completely ineffective.

Navigation --"I'll get to that on slide 15": The only reason training appears to be a sequential process is because the trainer has to have a planned sequence of steps in mind in order to deliver a training session. Powerpoint follows a strictly linear sequence with a single chain of pages and does not allow sub-sections at multiple levels. This limitation is not an issue when there is a live presenter. However, in an online self-paced environment, the user must have the ability to traverse around the content without restrictions, navigate through pages, go to external references, and in general, have access to more details when desired.

Just bullets won't do: Software learning in particular requires demonstrations and not just static presentations (animated bulleted text notwithstanding). The visual aspect of showing the user how something is accomplished using a software is extremely critical to the learning process (e.g., how a tool is invoked, how to get to a certain screen, which switches to set, etc.).

Beware, it's a Microsoft World!

Standardizing on a Microsoft product is a modern day version of slavery. Thankfully, the Internet has limited this slavery to some extent. Here are some issues to bear in mind before you swear by Powerpoint as your medium of choice for development of online learning.
  • PowerPoint is designed for delivery from a PowerPoint player (or PowerPoint itself). It is not designed for delivery using a Web browser of unknown screen size.
  • HTML format from PowerPoint is not optimal for the web. When you save PowerPoint as HTML, it takes a snapshot of every slide, and stores this as a graphic. Then, it builds some navigation buttons around it. When you save it, you have to specify what screen size you desire. This means that your content is not searchable because it is just a series of graphics. Besides, if the learner's monitor has a resolution that is too high or too low, they will have trouble reading the content.
  • If a learner has a low bandwidth connection to the server, it will take a long time for each page to download.
  • Microsoft products work best with Internet Explorer. If you have end users on other browsers, Powerpoint won’t work as well.

Converting PowerPoint content to flash does address some of these issues but still carries with it all the fundamental limitations of a presentation vs. a learning solution.

Online Learning Solutions
Learning using a different medium such as the Internet clearly has its advantages. However, it also requires that the content development be approached differently from the conventional techniques used for instructor-led training. The absence of a live instructor implies a different environment and a user with a mindset that differs from someone in a classroom. Hence, using conventional tools and simply trying to extend them for the Web are likely have very poor results. The challenge is to leverage the new medium to provide a lot of information without overwhelming the learner. Instead, the learner has to be steadily drawn into the various topics and encouraged to probe and access additional information during the learning process.

An ideal online learning solution is one which has the following characteristics:

  1. Engaging (visually with graphics, audio, video etc.)
  2. Easy to use, with intuitive and powerful navigation (which lets the learner be in charge).
  3. Provides plenty of information but is presented in small installments guiding the learners as they learn and probe for more information (search, glossary)
  4. Constantly enhances content from everyday user issues (FAQ, support queries).
  5. Provides the ability to reach out to a subject matter expert (email, chat)
  6. Includes interaction with other learners in the community (Message board, chat).
  7. Has plenty of examples showing actual screen shots and step-by-step instructions (Simulations).
  8. Tests the learner at various stages, especially if there is Certification involved (Quizzes).
  9. Seeks feedback from the learner about the content, the actual experience etc. (Evaluation)
  10. Last but not the least, makes the access to the course easy and painless (registration, installation, browser testing etc.)

There can be no doubt that a solution with all these rich features is more suited to training and significantly differs from a conventional presentation. Ideally, you want a solution that does not force you to stick with one presentation tool but instead supports various desktop authoring tools while still remaining largely Web friendly. For example, just as Powerpoint is widely used for presentations, Adobe Framemaker is almost a de facto standard for development of manuals. Thus, you want an online solution that supports Powerpoint, Framemaker and any other desktop application of choice. This ensures that your developers are not forced into using any specific desktop application. Instead they should have the freedom of using their tool of choice but create content that still seamless integrates with your organization's online learning content.

Power certainly corrupts, but before you are absolutely corrupted by Powerpoint, think again--there are certainly better options out there!