basement classroom (ugh)

I’ve been lucky to have two really great classes this term, with some wonderful students. However, the locations for these classes couldn’t have been more different. My science fiction class was held over the lunch hour in a hot and windowless basement room, where forty sleepy students smuggled in sandwiches and coffee. My Women’s Studies class met in Second Life in the evenings, a dozen or so students seated in a wooded seaside area, keeping a lively conversation going even though they were tired after a long day’s work.  Members of the Second Life class who couldn’t participate during class time contributed through blogs.

student presentation in SLI don’t need to tell you which space I preferred to teach in, but what’s interesting to me is how similar classroom management was in both spaces.  The high point of both classes was the student presentation; students in both classes were asked to a ten-minute presentation.  They weren’t required to use PowerPoint, although they were given some instructions on what NOT to do with a PowerPoint presentation (20 words per slide, 15 slides maximum, no reading slides, don’t forget to finish with a discussion question).* The Second Life PowerPoint was prepared  the old-fashioned way; the PowerPoint was saved as .png images and uploaded as textures, which were then loaded into a standard slide projector, which the student controlled.

Almost unanimously, my students chose to use PowerPoint, and most were highly successful presentations. There were some minor differences; students in my physical class usually waited politely for the speaker to finish before they asked a question, while students in my virtual class often did a running commentary in text chat when a presentation interested them.  Students in my physical class often mentioned their nervousness at speaking in front of a large class, while my virtual students commented on the relaxed nature of a virtual presentation.

In both the physical and the virtual class, however, the short PowerPoint proved to be an effective kick-off point for discussion; sometimes we would go back over a particular slide in the question period, and students could challenge a point, or make suggestions for improving the presentation.  The Powerpoints were also useful for revision; if the student gave permission, their PowerPoint could be linked to the relevant page in the learning management system, while in Second Life the student could just leave their presentation in a convenient area for review.  In Second Life, this worked well for the asynchronous students (bloggers), who could visit the classroom later on to see the presentations.

As far as I’m concerned, social exchange is what makes a class, and presentations are a good way to encourage this.  I’m always a bit baffled by the “Death by PowerPoint” people, some of whom seem to believe that these kinds of discussion aids shouldn’t be used.  I’ve found PowerPoint very useful in both physical and virtual spaces, but maybe I’m just old-fashioned.  With the summer stretching ahead, it seems like a good time to explore other possibilities.  Any suggestions?

* Update, June 2013: Since I wrote this, I’ve found I get better presentations when I make it 10 slides, 10 words, 10 minutes, the last slide is a direct quote from the reading under discussion.