Back Channels in the Classroom

By Matthew Slaats

There has been an ongoing conversation taking place here at Vassar College, about the role of the computer in the classroom. At a time when technology seems ubiquitous, there are still very strong opinions on the pros and cons of students using laptops in class. These range from those focused on the “chalk and talk” method to having highly digital classrooms. To me this is not a discussion of right or wrong, but a question of appropriateness, especially when trying to create an atmosphere of engaged learning.

One place where I feel that digital technology can make a major impact is the large lecture hall. Typically, these spaces are about the transmission of information from faculty to student. The relationship is directional, emanating from the lectern or chalkboard to the eyes and ears of students. At an early stage in a college career, this is a vital transaction, providing a foundation for the years to come. The lecture hall is a standard on every campus and will continue to be for many years. Concerns arise, however, as the computer begins to invade this space, allowing students’ minds to wander to their ever-growing social network. So, what can be done to maintain focus and build on the possibilities of the information being provided?

One idea that I’ve been thinking about for several years is the “back channel.” No, I’m not going to talk about some grimy alleyway to place misbehaving students in. What I would like to consider is a virtual space, organized and developed by students, that allows them to engage in conversation, ask questions, and bring their own perspective to what had been a one-sided conversation. This online space would allow for the class presentation to be viewed alongside other modes of communication. After a cursory review, an instructor might then bring some of these topics into the conversation when meeting with smaller groups. There are also significant possibilities for those students who are just a bit too shy to raise their hands.

With Powerpoint and Adobe Connect developing webcasting capabilities, this idea is already a possibility. A recent New York Times article discussed options and identified initiatives at several universities to create just such a space.

No matter which side of the conversation you fall on, may it be chalkboard or webboard, the important thing is to find modes of teaching that allow students to engage. It is about making the information meaningful, not just for meaning’s sake, but in such a way that the student can make it a part of their own personal experience. Providing modes of response accomplishes this objective.


Presenting the Image – Powerpoint, Keynote & Prezi

by Matthew Slaats

Certain software programs tend to dominate the conversation at times, leading most to fall in line because of their pervasive nature.  No software has held court so long as Powerpoint, the industry standard when it comes to creating a presentation. The software’s format and interface so easily combined our conceptions of word processing and the analog nature of the 35mm slide, that no other choice seemed to make sense.  This ubiquity, though, is not without problems.  With the desire to integrate various forms of media growing, Microsoft has tended to be a bit slow in their response. I picture all of those who want to integrate web-based video into their presentation, but are constantly reminded that it can only be done on the PC version of the software.  Then there is the draconian method for developing movement within a slide (how many steps will that take?) and the horrible templates they provide for the slides.  My blood begins to boil every time I attend a conference and see bullets. Now we shouldn’t demonize Powerpoint in such a way. It is just a tool, and one that has served us well throughout its life.  But what alternatives are out there?  Is there anything?

One dilemma that I’ve seen boil up in the last several years has focused on a conversation that pits Keynote vs. Powerpoint. Apple’s version of a presentation software provides a much more flexible framework for developing material.  The main benefit of Keynote is its ease of use.  All or most of the functionality of the software is readily accessible and not hidden within a series of menus.  It provides a variety of ways for getting media into a slide and it  allows you to manipulate that information in a multitude of ways.  From easily creating animated movements that direct attention across a single slide to the ability to mask certain parts of an image, Keynote’s adaptivity is an expression of what Apple is known so well for producing. Beyond this, the software easily translates a Powerpoint file directly into Keynote and works in pixels instead of inches, which is a positive for those working with images.  If you are a Mac user, you have in Keynote an alternative to Powerpoint. The question resides in how motivated you are to make a transition from the one standard to another.

Here is a video that describes how to create an animation in Keynote.

So you might ask if there is anything else out there that might be an option?  Yes there is and it is one of the more exciting options to come around in a long time.  Prezi is both a web- and desktop-based application that turns the tables on how a presentation can be constructed.  You are no longer confined to the slide, a 20th century format.  Instead, you have a wide open space upon which text, images, videos from Youtube, and a whole range of other media can be displayed.   Having such a blank canvas can be a bit daunting and requires a bit of creative skill, but the platform allows the user to move, rotate and scale information quite easily.  The other major difference is the ability to zoom in and out of the presentation, which allows elements to be revealed and placed into broader contexts in unique ways.  Beyond that, Prezi is primarily a web-based application.  This is something both Keynote and Powerpoint have been playing with in recent upgrades, but haven’t been as successful in achieving.  What is nice about this opportunity is that there is no need to carry a file around on a device that could be lost.  Your presentation is uploaded to the web and you can access it from any computer.  You no longer have to worry about compatibility because you are working with a PC or Mac. Here is a great video showing Prezi in action. (Click the arrow at each step of the presentation)

So, you now have to make a decision.  Do you stay with the standard or delve into something new?   I say give these other alternatives a try.  Know about them and how you might be able to use them to your advantage.  Though with the changes that have been taking place in this area,  I’m sure there will definitely be something new just around the corner.