In Spring 2020, the forced transition to using only digital media in higher education due to the Corona pandemic has meant being “forced” to go totally digital. In May 2020, the most challenging module for me to change was Speech and Prestation Skills for University, a module in two courses, Basic English Writing & Presenting Skills for Uni (AK203E), as well as in the IMER program course, Writing in the Social Sciences (EN211L).
The first challenge was to examine the course syllabus, understanding the learning goals, learning activities, and exam forms laid out. Luckily, the syllabus does not specify if the performance of the presentation is live in a classroom or in a digital form. Thus, my primary task was to find out what learning activities and exam forms would serve to lead to student success in achieving the learning outcomes, specifically how this was going to be done online. The primary questions then were 1) how to teach and what learning activities to use, and 2) if the exam should be synchronic in Zoom or if it should be synchronic pre-recorded presentations that the students should submit. I thought that probably that the form of the exam would affect how to teach and what learning activities to implement. However, I think in the end that the final teaching method and content as well as the learning activities can contribute to either exam form. What I decide to do was to have live synchronic presentations.
Traditionally, the course including a lecture on tradition techniques of rhetoric and then moved on to more specific lectures and activities on the production of voice and the use of body language, as well as specific rehearsal of presentations, following the Skinner model (1990) of how actors work in preparing for a performance in the theatre. Using the same exercises for voice and speech that actors, politicians, royalty, and other professional public speakers have used for 80 years, I began training the students in how to talk, how to walk, how to gesture, and how to interact with the audience. Time was devoted to practical exercises and then to individual tutoring of the students one-by-one as they did practice presentations and then exam presentations.
The structure of module was over three weeks.
Usually, the first week consisted of the above lectures and then workshopping on individual presentation of 1 minute long. The content of the presentation was ignored and only the actual performance of the student was analysed: how the student stood, held their body, moved in the space, used their voice, etc. Each student was usually expected to receive my comments and critique and then try their presentation again, implementing my suggestions immediately on the spot. This process was similar to an acting teacher working with an actor. This workshop week usually took about 6 hours. During this week, students were also formed into groups and required to prepare a group presentation that would become the focus of the second and third weeks and would be the exam for the module.
During the second week, usually, students met with me in in their groups and presented their presentation without any audience. I worked with the group and their presentation in a similar way to how a director works with cast of actors on a play for the theatre. All elements of a live presentation before an audience were considered, including physical and vocal exercises, memory, articulation, volume, body language, confidence, use of the stage space, and interaction with the other object on stage, such as the computer, podium, slide-screen, and other group members, as well as interaction with the audience. The goal was for students to be aware of their short comings and to gain insight into just why their presentations were so unprepared and so boring, which was usually the case at this point. Sending them home with critique on what to do, they would have another week to work and get their presentation ready for an audience. The third week was committed to the actual presentations for the rest of the class, where everyone “performed” their final presentation for their exam.
In this spring of 2020, however, the changes needed to focus less on how they would do a presentation in a physical space and a physical audience in the room, to a digital space, with the audience hidden behind a camera and possibly only one or two audience members visible. The main challenge seemed to be what would be the best way to present the material. I also needed to find out in what ways the students vocal and physical performance might change and be affected by giving their presentation via Zoom, as well as how the audience might perceive the presentation. The risk is a passive audience. The main goal with these presentations needed to be to get the audience’s attention and keep it, including communicating clearly being persuasive. To achieve this task, I decided that the best choice would be the following.
The usual lectures and exercises on both traditional rhetoric plus voice and body were my own pre-recorded lecture videos, as well as YouTube clips, and they were assigned to the students to watch before the three weeks began. As I have done with other modules of the course, the students were assigned in Canvas articles or chapters to read under READ, these lectures and videos to watch under WATCH, and then an assignment to prepare under WRITE. In this case they needed to write and prepare both their one-minute individual presentations for the workshops and start preparing their group presentations for the second two weeks and the exam. Then, as in the other modules, student would meet with me in Zoom for our class learning activities (as said in Part One of this article series, all lectures were pre-recorded and Zoom sessions were saved for learning activities).
The first week in Zoom, the students presented their one-minute presentations, and I was able to talk about some aspects of their voice and the physical presentation. However, mostly I devoted the time to each student becoming familiar with the functions of Zoom, teaching them how to open a PowerPoint and share in Zoom, how to frame themselves in the camera, how to improve the sound quality, how to look directly into the camera in order to simulate “eye-contact”, and how to use the depth of vision the camera gives. Moreover, we devote time to the process and structure of each student presenting their part of their group presentations and what would be required of them in the working process the next two weeks.
I had decided that seeing as I couldn’t test the students’ physical performance in a room, I needed to test them using the digital tools of a digital presentation. I decided to assign the students to form their presentations as a so-called Pecha Kucha: 20 slides for 20 seconds each, for a total of about 7 minutes only (Dytham & Klein, 2020). Additionally, I assigned the students to follow the guidelines of “How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint”, a TedxTalk given by Swedish author David Phillips (Phillips, 2011). I showed them an example of a PowerPoint that I had made using the principles of both Pecha Kucha and How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint. I gave them the following working structure.
Firstly, write 20 short texts of no more than 40 to 50 words each, less if the student was a slow speaker, maybe as little as 25 words each; the total of words would then be anything between 500 and 1000 words, depending on the speaker. After the text was written, and the student was sure that each segment only took about 20 seconds, I suggested the student then begin to develop a slide that illustrates the topic of that slide: photos, images, keywords, etc., instructing them to be careful not to break the rules of How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint (Phillips, 2011). Finally, I told the student to begin practicing them.
Thus, I started the first week with these instructions. As we did the workshops, more questions about how to make these slides and presentation came up. However, by the second week, it became clear that this would take more time in the group presentation rehearsals for me (without an audience), as most groups were not nearly prepared enough with their presentations. Learning to create good PowerPoints and write a short text for each was a new challenge for these students. In these weeks, I needed to book a second time to see most groups. I think only 2 of 9 groups did not need a second rehearsal with me. Much of the challenge was that they kept breaking the rules of How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint, or breaking the rules of Pecha Kucha, or both. Long boring presentations with far too much text on each slide were typical the first time around. However, “learning-by-doing” is my motto (Dewey, 1897), and by the second time each group saw me that week, their presentations were getting a better structure.
Finally, by the week of their presentations, students had learned how to make smooth transitions between each speaker. After introducing the next speaker, they could mute themselves and stop screen sharing their PowerPoint. The results of practicing three times, once in the short one-minute presentation and twice with the group rehearsals, they had succeeded in using both Zoom and PowerPoint and in making effective and visually stunning presentations. Also, even the most resistant or slowest to learn students finally stopped filling the screen with text, as well as stopped looking at their notes and instead looked at the camera. However, there was still one area that never quite succeeded, and that was monotone voice, low energy, and poor body language. These elements seemed hard to teach online and it gave me and idea for future semesters teaching this course.
What I envision for the future is one more week of presentations, but this time live in the classroom. I want to use the same process, doing most of this online. For the first week, I want a combination of the lectures and workshops to be pre-recorded or to be in Zoom and some to be in the classroom with the students workshopping. Then I want the same two weeks learning to make good online presentations. Then, when the students have created good presentations and know their material well, I want a final week where they will have to do it live in the classroom.
I think that it is important that students learn not exclusively how to make good PowerPoints and a good online presentation, and not exclusively how to speak in an interesting and dynamic way, but to be able to do both. I firmly believe that the if they can do both, if they have to do an online presentation only, they should be able to use good body language and voice technique. Additionally, I believe that when they have to do presentations on campus in a classroom, they should be able to make a good clear presentation with the technology available, such as PowerPoint, and to make clear and exciting slides. I think that with the combination of both, a death by PowerPoint can be a thing of the past.
Screen shot of my students working with Pecha Kucha in Zoom.
by Adam Gray
Skinner, E. (1990). Speak with Speak with Distinction: the classic Skinner Method to speech on Distinction: the classic Skinner Method to speech on the stage. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers.
Dytham, M., & Klein, A. (2020). Pecha Kucha. Retrieved from Pecha Kucha: www.pechakucha.com
Phillips, D. (2011). How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint. Sweden: Presentation Skills Ltd. Retrieved April 30th, 2020, from TedxTalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iwpi1Lm6dFo
Dewey, J. (1897, January 16). My Pedagogic Creed. The School Journal, LIV(3), 77 – 80. Retrieved from https://infed.org/mobi/john-dewey-my-pedagogical-creed/. Retrieved: 30 April 2020].
This story is part of Multinclude Inclusion Stories about how equity is implemented in different educational environments across the globe. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Author is the winner of the 2017 Teacher Award at Malmo University. He teaches Academic English and Presentation Skills in the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (AKL) at MAU.