Creating Engagement within Online Lectures – No More PowerPoint


One of the great thing about academia is that there are so many different teaching styles, and students get exposed to a range of presentation methods. The academic environment is changing, though, and the traditional lecture is under pressure from many angles. While the presentation of fundamental concepts must still be a core foundation of a module, the availability of cloud storage and on-line video channels now allow academics with a way to present their material, so that students can catch-up with it in their own time. This then allows for new teaching methods to occur within the traditional lecture environment, such as with question-answer voting, or for two-way discussions between the lecturer and the class. While key principles will still be presented in the lecture, a more dynamic teaching environment may benefit students, and move away from a talk-and-chalk style. In the future, the statement by the academic for “laptops-off” might become “laptops-on“. If this happens, academics must guard against the lecture becoming a place where the provision of key academic principles becomes limited, and that we move towards creating an environment where students are engaged for the lecture, but walk away having learnt little. Education often requires enforcement, and to re-investigate and study with a degree of rigor (which is the reason that we focus students on exams and courseworks).

Microsoft PowerPoint has been the friend of the academic for over 20 years, but the Internet and YouTube are catching-up with it fast. There are also many changes in academia, including the support for distance learning methods, and also in terms of using on-line lectures to actively recruit new students. On-line lectures, especially ones which are delivered through YouTube, can be now be used as a powerful marketing tool for universities, and provides candidates with a “taster” of the content on courses.

Figure 1: Some of the problems with PowerPoint-type lectures

Common failings

The shortcomings of the PowerPoint type presentation are obviously to many including with these styles:

  • Reading from the slides. This is often a trap that researchers fall into (especially when they are not confident in their work) and, surprising in job interviews, where candidates reel-off some details of the brief they have been asked for (and is often a reason that someone doesn’t actually get the role).
  • Creating too much animation. The flow of the presentation is important, and it doesn’t take too much to knock someone of their stride. Many presenters regret adding animation, especially when revealing a list of options, especially if it goes too slow, or too quickly.
  • Too detailed. A common failing is to add too much text, especially when it is too small. This is often compounded by the first problem, where the presenter reads from the small text on a slide. If you present like this at a job interview – you will not get the job!
  • No flow and breaks. The audience needs to know where they are in a presentation, and what the main objective of the slides are, and how they fit together. There is nothing worse than banging through without any breaks, and not recapping or re-focusing. A common technique to improve this is to use keyframes, which allow the presentation to break and define a new subject area/focus.
  • Clipart overload. Clipart has improved over the years, but some of the clipart from the past often does little to enhance a presentation.
  • Too many changes between slides. With this the presenter continually bombards the audience with lots of slide changes. A good approach is to try and abstract the content into single diagrams, which be talked around.

Often the best teachers draw things, and avoid text, apart from annotating diagrams, so online lectures which tell a story, and which abstract the concepts are more engaging than text based ones with bullet points.

History of PowerPoint

While many think that PowerPoint has its roots in Microsoft Windows, it was originally developed by Forethought, in 1987, for the Apple Mac, and named “Presenter”. It then renamed “PowerPoint” to overcome trademark restrictions, after which Microsoft bought the company for $14 million USD, and officially launched it on 22 May 1990. A key update occurred with PowerPoint 97 with the integration of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) which supported the scripting of events. Until recently it held over 95% of the presentation software market share, and installed on over 1 billion computers. Its focus has always been on static slides, with guides for the presenters defined with bullets. While PowerPoint has led us down certain ways of doing presentations, there’s a need for new methods to fully engage audiences (who may be live or watching remotely).

Towards a dynamic presentation

sparkol-videoscribe-logoMany of the best teachers use a method of drawing abstract diagrams, and this is used as a focal point for students. In the days of blackboards, teachers would continually draw things on the board (and many even wrote on the blackboard for pupils to write down). This style has not really translated to PowerPoint, which tends to have a static mode of transmission. While it is possible to draw on a slide, it still looks static, and often fails to engage the watcher.

The methods used to Video Sparkle possibly show one way towards providing an engaging presentation, where the presentation adds a voice-over, onto a scripted presentation. Figures 2 shows an example where a difficult subject (Cryptography) has been created to make it more engaging. Within this, just as a teacher would when drawing on a whiteboard, there is a continual movement and drawing around the key concepts. You will also see that there are only five main screens for the key concepts, and then the story is told around this. The key elements of this type of method are to:

  • Provide focus around the key subject topics.
  • Provide a focal point around the key topics.
  • Highlight where the viewer should be looking.

Figure 2: Example Video Scribe presentations

Going digital

There are many ways that academics have been using to go digital with their lectures. While some have went purely for audio, others have been able to record their lectures with a “talking-head” presentation. With a “talking-head” method, there is normally a fairly significant investment in recording the lecture, which can have audio problems, and where the presentation does not quite capture the excitement of the lecture situation. These lectures are often recorded live with students, which makes it difficult for the lecturer to act normally, and will often add-in things that are not quite required, or that would be irrelevant for future years. They can this date quickly.

The voice-over-a-presentation is another method of putting lectures on-line, and often have a defined script, and where key frames are used to pause the presentation, and re-start. This allows academics to splice-together a presentation, and re-record parts of it, and splice it into the presentation.


A great debate has occurred around the access to on-line material, where some universities hold the lecture material within their own infrastructure, but there are great opportunities in terms of engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, especially with the general public, in putting lectures on-line, such as through YouTube. This also has the advantage of 24×7 support for the on-line material, and allows for it to be access from any location on a range of devices. With an increase in the amount of content available to students, universities must look at new ways to engage, and showcase their quality of their academic material, and VideoScribe type lectures is just one technique that they could turn too.

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