Prezi in Education

New technologies are always developing that can be useful in the classroom. Over the past couple of years, Prezi started as a small start-up with a unique idea and has developed into a very usable alternative to PowerPoint and Keynote for creating presentations.

Prezi is very different in that, rather than a collection of slides presented in linear fashion, the presenter prepares a canvas that contains all of the material – text, images, even online content – that can be browsed, zoomed, spun, and more. You may be familiar with the idea of mindmapping – starting with a core concept and connecting related ideas in a web-like diagram. Prezi builds on this idea and adds an interactive level.


Where Prezi really shines in the classroom is the ability to show the big picture as well as the finer details.

Recently, the team at Prezi launched a resource called Prezi Explore, a collection of presentations licensed for reuse and adaptation. This is an excellent resource for teachers who can grab a prebuilt presentation on a difficult concept and use it to give a new perspective to their students.

One of the Prezi presentations included in this section explains how Prezi can be used as a teaching tool. Browse through it and see some really great examples of how the tool can be used in the classroom to help students have a better understanding of the topic.

If you like what you see, go ahead and sign up for Prezi – it's free for the public, plus they offer free upgraded accounts to individuals with a .edu e-mail address.

Use More Images

In a previous post, I introduced 2 Design Changes that Follow All Brain Rules.

2. Use More Images

For thousands of years the human brain has developed to process the visual input received through the eyes from the surroundings. Survival depended on being able to see the mammoth from far off, spot the snake in the grass, or the color of fruit in a tree. Only recently in its evolution has the brain's visual system spent so much time decoding letters, such as the ones that make up War & Peace. The cortex of the human brain has developed immensely to be able to read and ponder such literary works, not to mention complex scientific textbooks. And yet, even now, the brain still responds more actively to vibrant pictures.

Trade weapons for art. Replace your bullet points with high quality photographs. Bullet points are great for shopping lists and talking points, but not for getting your point across. They just don't work, because text is boring and lists are distracting.

If each item truly is that important, create a separate slide with a high quality image that represents the idea. Or use an image to represent the overall idea of the list, and verbally give the key points of the idea.

Go ahead and bleed. Using a full screen image is much more effective than copying the thumbnail from a Google search. Instead, download the full resolution file and fill the screen with it.

[caption id="attachment_72" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Fill the screen with image for more impact"]Sample Slide Using Full Bleed Image[/caption]

Don't clip to save. This is one instance when cheaper isn't better. Don't use the built in clip-art for graphics. Dip into your classroom funds and purchase stock images for the really important lectures. Web sites like iStockPhoto sell high quality images for relatively low prices. Once you sign up as a member, you can access their Free Image of the Week. Collect these over the years and you'll have a substantial library of great images that are bound to fit in to your lecture slides somewhere.

[caption id="attachment_401" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="Purchase high quality stock images for important presentations"]Image from iStock Photo[/caption]

Join the commonwealth. Ok, so most classroom budgets won't get you very far, but there are alternatives. You can access a wealth of images created by amateur and professional photographers who license their images for reuse – it's called a Creative Commons license. I explained how to do this in a previous post.

But that's not all! There are many organizations who provide many of their images for free. Just for starters, visit some of these sites:

[caption id="attachment_397" align="aligncenter" width="270" caption="NASA provides high quality images for public use."]Image from NASA Image Gallery[/caption]

DIY. If you're still struggling to find the image that you want, get creative and Do It Yourself. Grab a digital camera (a 3-megapixel camera is commonplace today and is sufficient quality for a presentation) and make the image yourself. Take a moment to review some basic photography concepts, such as the Rule of Thirds and lighting, at a website like Digital Photography School and then go out and explore your inner Ansel Adams.

There is so much more that we could discuss in relation to the use of images in your lecture slides, but they can be addressed in future posts. For now, see how you can improve one of your lecture slide decks by using less text and more images.

Possibilities with the iPad

Yesterday, Apple released the iPad, "A Magical and Revolutionary Product at an Unbelievable Price." It was an instant hit, selling an estimated 600,000 - 700,000 in the first day.

As a true Apple fan, I spent a few hours playing with the iPad, on the day of its release, wondering what it could mean for the future of presentations in the classroom. Let me tell you that I am very excited.

Some people have criticized it as nothing more than a large iPod Touch. Frankly, they're not far off, and that is precisely why I am so excited. The iPhone/iPod Touch interface is very intuitive and natural to use. Because there is no mouse – you just use your finger – the learning curve is flattened out.

So why not just use an iPod Touch? There are two things that make the iPad different. First, it has more power. The iPad is more responsive and capable of running programs that require a lot of processing power. Second, the iPad has a 9" screen, and it is beautiful. It really becomes a window to another world.

Ok, so it's a fancy new gadget. So what? I'm glad you asked, because there's no point in getting excited over something new unless it has real, practical value. While I believe the iPad will make a huge impact in the education system, it probably don't have to go out and grab one just yet. Start saving your pennies, finish this semester, and put together a proposal for your school's IT department to convince them to get you one for the next school year. In the meantime, here are some things to start thinking about.


The iPad will be the perfect student companion. While the on-screen keyboard will take getting used to, third party products can turn the iPad into a very useable digital notebook. Combine the Pogo Sketch Stylus with an app such as Mental Note and a student can type, draw, sketch, or write their notes on the iPad while recording audio from the lecture.




Apple provides a free app called iBookstore for the iPad which allows you to search and download electronic books much like on Amazon's Kindle. However, instead of grayscale text, you get beautifully formatted, multimedia enhanced, full color books. Major textbook publishers have already announced plans to release their titles on the iPad. No more 20 pound backpacks for 80 pound 6th graders!


With it's iPod app for music and video, as well as the built in YouTube app, the iPad could be the single device to organize all of the multimedia content a teacher could want. Record a podcast for the kids to listen to at the beginning of class, download the most recent NOVA Science video podcast, watch a chemistry experiment blow up on YouTube, or play classical music during free reading time. Have a full screen seating chart with pictures and tap on each student that is absent. At a starting price of $499, it wouldn't be surprising to see iPads replace the full desktop in each classroom. And at 1.5 lbs, most teachers wouldn't hesitate to bring work home with them.


While I comment on all aspects of education, this site is really about creating great presentations in the classroom, and the iPad will be a fabulous tool in that regard. Beyond the multimedia options I have already mentioned, Apple has released a version of Keynote designed specifically for the iPad. In addition, you can purchase a VGA connector to use the iPad with a projector. The device will change to a presenter display and show the presentation on the screen. While Microsoft has no plans to create a version of Office for the iPad, Keynote will open PowerPoint documents that have been e-mailed to the device.


New to the touch version of Keynote are on screen presenter tools. With a simple swipe from the left of the screen you can pull up all of the slides in the presentation and jump forward or back. Watch the first minute of this video of a hands-on demo to see it in action.

(Update: As you can see in the video, the demo shows an on screen drawing feature which allows you to annotate your slides much like on a white board or as sports commentators do. This feature is not functional on release versions of the iPad.)

Creating presentations on the iPad is a breeze and a delight. You can move objects just by touching them and add smooth transitions with ease. Typing isn't too difficult, but that doesn't matter because you use very little text anyway. Photos can be imported from your iPhoto library or saved to the device via e-mail.

To learn more about iPad, visit Apple's website and watch these Guided Tours.

Slide Makeover: Mentoring Workshop

I was asked just a week and a half ago to help two faculty members prepare some slides for a conference they would be presenting at in Montreal. I knew it would be a challenge, but after hearing a little bit more I was very interested and agreed. Then I gathered a few more details. They were presenting a 4-hour workshop in under 2 weeks! I realized this would be a much larger project than I anticipated. But it has been a great learning experience.

Pat Esplin and Dr. Stefinee Pinnegar were great to work with. They were excited about their work and accepting of my suggestions and changes. Pat openly admitted to me upfront that she used PowerPoint as her notes. "We have too much text and too many slides! I know we're going to have to cut something out." I was excited to hear that because it meant we were on the same page. Even better, when I asked why they called me, they said it was because they both had seen my work at the ELL Symposium a month or so ago and wanted their presentations to look similar.

Here is a sampling of the slides before and after the makeover.

You can see an animated version of the final slides here:

PowerPoint Handouts Not Effective

A while back, Mike Pulsifer pointed me to an article on Ars Technica: Study: class podcasts can lead to better grades. The article, and the research done by State University of New York, focus on whether using podcasts as an extra study resource for students can improve grades. I am a huge fan of podcasts. Over the past couple of years I have learned an immense amount by listening to podcasts – from language, to photography, to brain science, and design. On iTunes U anyone can access lectures from some of the best universities in the country by downloading and listening to podcasts of each lecture. This is a great way to acquire knowledge or to get further study for a class you're currently taking.

What I found even more interesting about this study was the method of teaching and study that wasn't as effective: handing out printed copies of the lecture slides to students. As the author of the article notes, passing out PowerPoint handouts has become "all the rage" in many lecture halls, within or outside the academic world. In fact, two of my previous science courses are designed around PowerPoint handouts – every slide of every lecture for the entire semester is included in a "Lecture Guide" that the students purchase at the beginning of the semester (sometimes in lieu of a textbook). Handout small.jpg

What's the problem with this?

PowerPoint slides are NOT notes. They should not function as notes. Not for the teacher and especially not for the student. Retention increases when exposure to information occurs across multiple modalities - listening to a lecture, reading a textbook, discussing a subject in a study group, etc. (You may be familiar with the idea of being a visual vs. kinisthetic vs. auditory learner.)

Business Plan Competition.jpg

A printout of common lecture slides is not much different than the lecture - except that you probably aren't having them read to you by a Ph.D.

But repitition increases recall, right?

Yes, that is true, but do not forget that certain modalities of learning are less effective than others. As Dr. John Medina points out, "the brain sees words as tiny pictures. Reading creates a bottleneck." (Brain Rules, pg. 234)

This is just one more reason to do away with text on those lecture slides, replace them with images, and maybe even replace the handouts with a link to the podcast version of your next lecture.

Introduction to Brain Rules


In many of the articles on this site I frequently refer to Brain Rules. A brief introduction will help you understand what Brain Rules are and how they relate to presentation design.

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School is written by Dr. John Medina, a developmental biologist and faculty member at both the University of Washington School of Medicine and Seattle Pacific University. He studies the brain – how it developed, how it works – and what that means for us in our day to day activities.

A brain rule is "something that scientists know for sure about how the brain works." For example, scientists know that the brain requires sleep to function well, so Sleep is a Brain Rule. Dr. Medina examines 12 of these principles and discusses how they should influence our daily actions: Because scientists know that sleep is very important, we ought to make it a priority in our daily schedule.

What is astonishing about the book is the realization that most people in our society are breaking nearly all of the Brain Rules! For instance, it is not news to most of us that we need sleep to function well, yet very few people make sleep a priority in our daily schedule. At the end of each chapter Dr. Medina offers simple suggestions on how society's habits can be changed to accommodate Brain Rules.

So what do Brain Rules have to do with presentations?

In fact, nearly all of the Brain Rules at least indirectly affect some aspect of presentations, teaching, and learning. Rule #1 states that exercise improves brain function. Rule #4 teaches us that we do not pay attention to boring things (i.e. most PowerPoint slides) and Rule #10 emphasizes the importance of Vision and explains why text is inferior to pictures.

To sum up the relationship between Brain Rules and presentations, take a look at this Slideshare presentation done by presentation guru, Garr Reynolds.

Brain Rules for Presenters
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: reynolds garr)

To learn more about Brain Slides, buy the book on

Visit the Brain Rules website, or stay tuned for more posts on how Brain Rules should play a key role in how you design your presentations for the classroom.

Is PowerPoint Evil?

I recently came across this video by Chris while browsing While he isn't the most exciting presenter, he does give a great summary of the most important points presentation design in an academic setting.

I was especially interested in the Q&A portion. One audience member said that if she were to just put up pictures and a few words she is afraid her students would think that it was a "Mickey Mouse course."

Is Powerpoint evil? from Chris on Vimeo.

What do you think:

Is good slide design too juvenile for an academic setting?


This post is a summary of the information in the 4th chapter of Brain Rules and the accompanying website,, by John Medina  Probably the most important Brain Rule for education has to do with attention. It is what students struggle the most to give and what teachers struggle the most to get.

Multi-Tasking Myth

The brain receives inputs from all of the body's senses and it decides how to allocate its attention. The brain cannot pay attention to two things at once. That's right: multi-tasking (when it comes to attention) is not possible! The brain can change it's attention very rapidly, however, but this comes at great expense. Whenever the brain shifts its attention, it must first disengage from the current task before it engages in another. Although these shifts in attention occur very rapidly, they can add up quickly. Imagine a student who is listening to music, checking Facebook, instant messaging, and talking on the phone all at once! The brain is constantly shifting its attention between these tasks.

Research shows that so-called 'multi-taskers' take up to 50% longer to complete a task and commit 50% more errors when compared to those who focus solely on the task at hand.

Meaning Before Details

The brain evolved to understand the bigger picture before it comprehends the details. Comprehension and recall both improve when key ideas are presented before specific facts. This is because the brain records information hierarchically in categories. Without the big picture, the brain doesn't know where the little details fit and loses interest.

The brain also looks for information that is useful or relevant to survival. When primitive man came in contact with an animal or plant, the brain would ask itself three questions:

Can I mate with it and will it mate with me?

Can I eat it or will it eat me?

Have I seen it before?

Based on those questions, it would decide whether it was worth paying attention to. Similarly, the modern human brain seeks to understand whether information is worth remembering. The brain may pose questions such as:

Can I use this knowledge to impress a girl?

Will this knowledge help me get a job?

Have I learned this information before?

By effectively asking, "What's in it for me?" the brain determines whether the material being presented is worth the effort to pay attention to, process, and retain.



Stories are a wonderful way of transmitting information. Many cultures have used storytelling as their primary method of passing on their histories. Stories are effective for two reasons. First, as explained above, even if the details of a story change, its meaning can remain intact. More importantly, though, stories are effective because they evoke a very primitive and powerful force: emotion.

As almost anyone will confirm, emotional events are remembered better than emotionally neutral events. Action packed sports games, tear-jerking movies, and funny commercials can be recalled quickly and easily.

10 Minutes

Multiple studies, as well as common classroom experiences, show that most brains cannot pay attention to the same thing for very long. The attention span generally lasts between 10-20 minutes, but rarely, if ever, spans the full 50 minutes of a regular college lecture.

It is interesting to note that the brain doesn't require much to restart the clock, so to speak. A brief diversion of a few minutes is enough.