Daily Archives: July 15, 2014

Why Academic conferences need to change, and why Powerpoint is a dead technology walking

I’ve been travelling around Australia giving workshops to teachers about presentation skills as well as technologies and mental health. Few teachers have ever heard of Apple’s Keynote presentation software, as I discovered when many came up to me after my presentations to ask how I did what I did – the why was pretty obvious!

I’ve also in the meantime been asked to become part of my professional society’s organising committee for its 50th anniversary conference in Queensland in 2015. I was part of the organising conference for its 25th anniversary where I was much involved in both the social program as well as the media coverage.

I think this time around my involvement will be concerned with social media, something that didn’t exist as we know it now all those years ago.

So with this in mind, I was delighted to see in my Zite feed today a blog post from a professor of Sociology, Steven Fuller, now at Warrick University in the UK.

Here is its title, and link:

Six principles for organising academic conferences in the 21st century

When I read the blog entry, I tweeted, “Halleluya, Brother”, so happy was I to see someone who also wished changes for academic conferences.

You can read the bulk of them at Fuller’s blog, but let me highlight (with the author’s permission) his first thee principles for presenters:

1. A conference is a distinct channel – perhaps even genre – of academic communication. It is not a watered-down or zombie version of the academic print culture. It requires its own ‘peer review’ standards that do not simply trade on the conventions of academic writing. Thus, instead of abstracts, prospective presenters should send video clips of 1-3 minutes that convey what will be said and how it will be said.

2. Presenters should be strongly discouraged from reading their presentations. More generally, presenters should be forced to make a special case for presenting material that is already available in print. The norm for conference presentations should be new material – unless a presenter hails from a field with which conference members are unlikely to be familiar.

3. Presentations heavily reliant on Powerpoint should be gathered thematically into what are essentially high-tech poster sessions rather than be given stand-alone speaker slots. This may mean that a larger percentage of the space in the conference facility is given over to such sessions. Indeed, organizers may wish to consider that the explicitness of many Powerpoint presentations render the human presenter redundant. Thus, interested conference goers may simply be directed to a computer terminal where all the Powerpoint-based presentations are loaded, perhaps with recorded voice-overs from the absent presenters.

I like these sentiments – a lot!

Fuller clearly understands that academic conferences need to change, and how presenters are selected and expected to present is different from that which pervades conferences now, based almost exclusively on the same principles as for paper publications.

He recognises that conferences are not the place for the regurgitation of printed articles, but are a meeting place of ideas, and where presentations to large groups need to be exceptional.

Along the same lines, today I also continued to read an eBook by Clive Thompson, called Smarter than you think: How Technology is changing our minds for the better.

It neatly follows my lectures to teachers this past month where I have described the history of moral panics down the centuries when new technologies have been introduced. Whether it be the loss of jobs or whole industries, our brains are changing, “knowledge is power” struggles, or issues of privacy, how we change technology and how technology changes us is an important ongoing discussion we need to be having.

Certainly, technologies like Powerpoint and Keynote and Prezi are changing how we distribute knowledge, and readers of this blog will be aware of my beliefs that it’s not all positive, especially in the case of Powerpoint. While many still follow the meme that Powerpoint is merely a tool badly used by too many, I fall into the camp that it is a very poor tool to begin with for knowledge distribution, especially in an age which is demanding far more audio-visual literacy, as Thompson points out.

A few choice quotes from the book:

thompson ppt



I don’t know that I need to place too much context around these quotes about Powerpoint – the astute reader will get the picture. It’s one of the things I have been banging on about consistently in my Presentation Magic workshops for those who attend: that the world of knowledge transfer, sharing and engagement is undergoing a radical shift and the usual means – i.e., traditional and socially normed – will no longer cut it as the 21st Century progresses.

Using software merely as an advanced overhead projector system – for which Powerpoint was originally developed for the Macintosh in the mid-1980s is a dead technology walking, no matter how you spruce it up, as we’re about to see when the next version for Windows is released soon.

The next generation of learners, employing their iPads in school, will be using Keynote or equivalents available on the iPad since 2010, with Powerpoint on the iPad mainly used by those currently in industry compelled to use the desktop version and needing some sort of tablet parity mobility.

But may I suggest, a whole generation of young people will never use Powerpoint. Kind of makes a mockery of all the educational administrators all those years ago who insisted their schools to standardise on Microsoft products like Word and Powerpoint because “that’s what the kids will be using when they enter the workforce in ten years”.

Yeah, right!