Keep Your Arms and Legs Inside the Lecture at All Times

Approximately 72 hours before my first lecture of my new American Crises module, I decided to abandon the twelve PowerPoint presentations I had already created in favour of an experiment with Prezi, a flash-based presentation platform. After composing and delivering eight lectures, I am ready to offer my initial thoughts.

What’s the Difference?

Unlike PowerPoint, which is composed of a series of rectangular slides, a Prezi is, in essence, one large slide that the presenter can move around, zooming in and out, panning left and right, as necessary. Because of this, Prezis have a much greater degree of flexibility in terms of sequence and movement. Although experienced PowerPoint creators can embed links to non-consecutive slides (or insert duplicates of previous slides) to break up linear sequences, most PowerPoint lectures continue to be linear in presentation (if not in content).

Moreover, because Prezi is flash-based, it allows the presenter to move within the ‘slide’ during the presentation, zooming or panning in response to audience questions (or a sudden remembrance) without upsetting the preset ‘sequence’ of movements. Clicking a presenter remote or the arrow key ‘snaps’ the presentation back to its pre-designed rails. Thus, Prezis are, for better or worse, much more digression-friendly than PowerPoint presentations.

In terms of creation there are also several important differences. Unlike PowerPoint, Prezi is, for all intents and purposes, a cloud and subscription-based application. You create and store all presentations on Prezi’s servers, though you can download fixed (non-editable) versions to your PC or portable media. This means that making a quick edit to your presentation is only possible if you have reliable internet access, something that is rarely guaranteed. Likewise, the subscription-based model means your presentations (at least the editable versions) are held by Prezi and could be lost forever if Prezi (or your desire to pay) evaporates.

That being said, the subscription costs are fairly reasonable. Members of the public can obtain a free basic licence, which allows you to create and distribute publicly visible Prezis and maintain 100MB of online storage. In my experience, this represents about twenty graphic-heavy, hour-long lectures. If you have an email address from an educational institution, you can obtain a free upgrade to 500MB and the ability to create private, non-branded Prezis. 2GB of storage and the ability to work offline will set you back $13.25 (USD) per month or $4.95 (USD) for teachers and students, though they do offer a free 1-month trial of the Pro service.

Although the ubiquitous nature of PowerPoint software makes these fees unappealing, Microsoft’s increasingly onerous encouragement to switch to their new cloud-based, subscription-based model makes Prezi’s pricing structure appear relatively competitive.

Even so, is there really any good reason to abandon PowerPoint for Prezi? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The Wow Factor

The first time I demonstrated Prezi to a colleague, their reaction was not ‘wow’; it was ‘ugh’. I had, in their opinion, been seduced by the latest cheap trick making rounds in academia. The first time I showed it to students, there were (very) subdued murmurs of interest, but these quickly subsided as they began to hurriedly note down that content of the lecture. After viewing a number of sample Prezis, provided by the developer, I had been quite impressed by the possible ‘wow factor’ of such presentations. That my own efforts failed to illicit such a response may merely indicate that I have not yet learned all the tricks of the trade. In the right hands, I am sure a Prezi could, indeed, wow. But, like PowerPoint before it, I have no doubt that the Prezi revolution has a rapidly approaching use-by-date.

Mindmaps and Pathways

One of the most useful aspects of Prezi has been the ability to organise my slides as mindmaps or timelines. In previous years, I have had ‘intermission’ slides, to alert my students that we were moving onto a new topic. While these were generally effective (and positively commented upon in feedback) the ability to create a visual mind-map of slides, with subsidiary topics being encircled by or springing forth from a central topic marker, has been incredible helpful. I have also encouraged my students to review the lectures afterwards, moving between topics and subtopics in the order that makes most sense to them. Although my new timeline-based presentations are no less linear than their PowerPoint forbearers, I am better able to visually indicate concurrent events or trends. I have also experimented with map-based presentations, zooming from one location to another, allowing students to understand geographic breath as well as chronological and thematic content.

Yet, while I have found this very helpful in constructing my lectures, I have no firm pedagogical evidence that the students are finding the information easier to assimilate or recall. Some students have indicated that they are better able to understand the ‘path’ of lectures, and none of have complained about non-nonsensical structures, which I suppose is all I could really ask for.

Zoom and Context

Probably the most touted feature of Prezi is its ability to zoom in and out in order to highlight detail and context. Rather than move between slides, images and text of the same size, this function allows you to nest your slides, one inside of the other, zooming in to highlight the relevant portion of an image or to give students a visual cue that you are going into the fine details or moving out to see the big picture. There is a limit to the extent to which you can zoom in or out, though with a bit of planning this should not pose any problems for most presentations. More difficult is the inevitable result of zooming into an typical web-based image; if it is not high resolution, you will simply zoom into a pixellated mess. There is some functionality for replacing the backdrop at different zoom levels, but the simplest solution is to start with a very high resolution image if you wish to zoom in to any extent.

The real issue with zooming about the Prezi is simply that, zooming. Users have no way to alter the precise paths taken or the speed with which the transition occurs. This is all done automatically once a start and end point are selected. The further away your two points are the faster the Prezi will appear to move between them. For this reason, many of my colleagues have complained about the nauseating effect the software has on them and their students. Thoughtful planning can reduce the tilt-o-whirl effect, but it is something that requires constant vigilance.

Accessibility

The beauty of PowerPoint’s ubiquity on university campuses is that a lecturer can upload their presentation to the university VLE or website and students can download it for printing or on-screen notation. Moreover, the slides are easily printable individually or in sets. Prezi also allows for printing via the ‘Create PDF’ option. This creates a file in which each view or stop in your presentation becomes its own page. Sadly, if you are frequently returning to a big picture or context image, this will result in a very large file with numerous duplicate slides.  Similarly, there is no sure-fire way of allowing students to print off multiple slides per page. Although most PDF readers do allow this, not all students are aware of this functionality. I avoid these difficulties by using PDFill PDF Tools, a free programme that allows me to quickly delete unwanted pages and reformat the file to display several slides per page. I can then upload the one-slide-per-page version for on screen reference and the four-slides-per-page for easy printing.

A particular word of warning: the ‘Create PDF’ option is very time consuming. Go and get a cup of tea time consuming. It also saves the images exactly as they currently appear. So if one of your text boxes happens to be selected, it will be appear with a blue border around it in the PDF.

In terms of accessibility, the Prezi’s themselves allow for a wide range of background and text colours, as well as some Serif and Sans Serif fonts. However, the selection is very limited and there is no way to import new fonts, even in the subscription version.  Nor is there any way to bold, italicise or underline words and phrases within a text block. One cumbersome solution is to create the text blocks in a word processor and import them as an image, but this requires a level of planning and time management that is not always practical. The same is true for images, which you can crop but cannot otherwise alter in the same manner you can in PowerPoint.

Time and Energy

Here is where Prezi really falls down, I am afraid.

Having already written my lectures and composed PowerPoint presentations, I thought it would br a simple matter to import the slides (via the in-built functionality) and reorganise them into a more aesthetically pleasing arrangement. Although the import function did technically import my text and images, the formatting and arrangement was mostly lost in the translation and required a great deal more time to ‘fix’ than I had originally anticipated. Moreover, any shadows or cropping I had implemented was now permanent and did not always suit the new context.

After the first week, I decided I was better off starting from scratch. Yet, even working from a plain document file was often troublesome. Cutting-and-pasting from Word resulting in numerous formatting issues (especially with bullet points) and often resized the text box against my will. Moreover, both the online and offline version tend to slow down exponentially the longer you work on a presentation. This seems to be the result of sloppy coding and usually requires me to reboot every few hours. One lecture ended up taking nearly seven hours to complete owing to the slow processing of images or panning from one section of the canvas to another. Indeed, after several hours work, zooming out simply became an impossibility. Prezi’s customer service department tends to blame this on the user (programmes running in the background, inadequate computer processing power), a ‘not-our-problem’ approach I find troubling.

Thus, while I do like the look of  my new Prezis more than that of my old PowerPoints, I have spent days creating them, time that almost certainly could have been better spent.

Student Reactions

Student reactions thus far have been positive, if not statistically significant. When asked on Twitter or at the conclusion of a seminars, students seem happy with the change, noting they are ‘more interesting’ than ‘the same old PowerPoints’. Novelty, however, is surely short lived. On the other hand, those students with iPads have begun to download the Prezi App, allowing them to follow along with the lecture podcast, or review the slides in context more easily than from static print-outs.

Conclusion

In the end, would I recommend Prezi to my colleagues? Yes and no.

If you are

  • creating new or significantly revised lectures, and
  • those lectures would benefit from a non-linear layout or dynamic movement (zooming in, out, and around), and
  • you have enough time to devote to learning and adapting to the new interface (and its seemingly inevitable slow downs),

then this may be an option worth exploring.  If you have 72 hours before the module starts, you may want to think again.

As for myself, I will continue to use Prezi. The benefits I have derived in structuring my lectures has, thus far, outweighed my annoyance at its processing bugs.

8 thoughts on “Keep Your Arms and Legs Inside the Lecture at All Times

  1. Hi Melodee, good blog. I think you’re right, it’s about the right tool for the right job. I use PP for topics focusing on sequences, and Prezi where the topic is better explained through relationships of concepts.My understanding is that it’s free for educational use — but maybe that’s changed.

    • Many thanks! Yes. I do try to be consistent within a module (even if my lectures aren’t) in terms of technology, but as you said, its always best to use the best tool for the job. Next year I will be making primary texts a bigger part of my lectures and am even contemplating…the horror…handouts!

  2. A little tip from me… I particuarly enjoy how Prezi can be used to return to the structure of the talk during a presentation. Most of my Prezis start and finish with a ‘big picture’ slide (title, themes, summative image et cetera) and the rest of the presentation is spent dipping in and out of this ‘big picture’. Doing this allows you to keep where we are and where we are going constantly in focus.

    • How do you layout your’big picture slide’? Like an outline and then zoom in? I would very much like to see if you have the notion to provide a screenshot.

  3. You mentioned accessibility, but didn’t address whether the material was at all accessible via screen readers or other adaptive tools for the disabled.

    • Thanks for this. I wanted to do a robust check before responding and I am sad to say that neither the Prezi as flash presentation or as PDF is compatible with Screen Reader tools. They are essentially images, and treated as such, rather than text. Prezi does offer a ‘transcript’ of each Prezi (it is under the comment box if you visit any of the above). However, this has no formatting and is used exclusively for search engine optimization. I feel now I have been quite remiss in my provision and will make sure I make a proper transcript of my Prezis in the future and provide these alongside the PDFs. I only hope Prezi will address this as well.

      • Thanks very much for checking. If I’d had to guess, that’s what I would have said: it’s precisely the kind of cool visuals that screams “who cares!” (Not you, prezis generally) I don’t know why flash is so obstinately inaccessible, but it’s going to run into legal trouble one of these days, or just wither and die because nobody responsible will use it.

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