Why and When to Use PowerPoint in Online Courses

While PowerPoint is a very effective tool for creating visual aids when used properly (or artistically, or satirically), it can be harmful when misused. Suggestions for appropriate use of PowerPoint have been documented in various blog posts on the Distance Learning website. For the Summer 2019 course development period, extra emphasis is being placed on on using PowerPoint in ways that go beyond its most convenient form: bulleted lists. Structured, bulleted lists may work well for quickly organizing your own thoughts, but there are other (trendier?) ways of doing that without using PowerPoint. PowerPoint can continue to be a useful tool for collaboratively designing visual information that is then displayed in a time-based medium, such as video. PowerPoint integrates well with Canvas’ integrated video platform, Panopto, and has many accessibility features built in, so not all uses of PowerPoint are bad. This guide will describe recommended uses of PowerPoint as well as mistakes to avoid when using PowerPoint. Specific examples will be provided when possible, but creating or finding your own examples is encouraged.

Recommended Uses of PowerPoint

For Collaborative Design in Familiar Software

The Microsoft Office suite is available to all members of Northwestern University at little to no cost. It is also very popular since so many professional settings require its use. It is not surprising to have a PowerPoint presentation be the central artifact in many public speaking situations. This familiarity with PowerPoint makes it a default tool for many people. Use whatever tool meets the most basic needs of a project. If that tool is PowerPoint, use it. However, when you discover that the tool is being misused, or no longer meets the needs of the project, you should change to another tool.

To Outline or Storyboard More Advanced Types of Media

If you decide to use PowerPoint because its basic functions meet your needs, you should first use it to plan your content. Before adding sophisticated and complex types design elements to your media, set up the underlying structure in the quickest and simplest way possible. This may mean using only structured text and simple diagrams to convey the information needed. Later, you can change to another tool or explore the advanced features of PowerPoint to do things like create stylized animations, detailed graphics, mix in multimedia, or use creative formatting elements to enhance or decorate your content.

Mistakes to Avoid When Using PowerPoint

Using PowerPoint to design and create media for asynchronous, online courses is slightly different than using it for a visual aid to a public speaking event. There are some shared principles that I think apply to both types. If your PowerPoint, after multiple drafts using the basic text and shape features of the software, is mostly a series of unending, unstructured text, you should consider switching to another medium. Formatted HTML adds structure (headings, lists, alt-text, and other screen reader-friendly markup) is an appropriate and accessible way to convey large amounts of text or hypertext. If your PowerPoint contains a lot of visual content that lacks context, consider adding descriptive captions. When using traditional diagram tools, consider using alternative chart or visualization tools to depict data, workflows, process, comparisons, matrices, or other commonly diagrammed concepts.

What Can You Use Instead of PowerPoint?

If you determine through working with your learning designer and instructional technologist that PowerPoint isn’t going to meet the needs for your course media, you can explore alternative tools that can be used for conveying graphical, visual information. There are already likely tools used by practitioners of the subject matter in your program. Ask your instructional technologist to make recommendations based on what has been used in other courses, or suggest piloting a new tool that hasn’t been used before. Most often, the content will guide you toward an appropriate format. The process of taking a concept or idea to a finished product will also help you gain better familiarity with your subject matter and make it easier to update in the future and translate into other formats, supporting universal design for learning.

Useful Links for Course Media Development

The following descriptive links may inspire you to approach Course Media Development differently. If you know of other links that would be helpful to creating course media, please add them.


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Aaron Bannasch
Senior Instructional Technologist – SPS | Distance Learning
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