CS students need to learn to use Powerpoint effectively

July 1, 2011 at 12:41 am 11 comments

Rich DeMillo has a great story about visiting alumni (with our current Dean, Zvi Galil) and being told that they wished that they had learned how to use Powerpoint better. It’s a story about communications, but in particular, about visual communications and making a point simply.

Zvi ask someone at the end of the table, “What’s the one thing you wish we had taught you?”

The answer came back immediately: “I wish I had learned how to make an effective PowerPoint™ presentation!” If the answer had been “more math” or “better writing skills” I would have filed it away in my mental catalog of ways to tweak our degree programs. It’s a constant struggle in a requirement-laden technical curriculum — even one as flexible as our Threads program — to get enough liberal arts, basic science, and business credits into a four year program, so I was prepared to hear that these young engineers wanted to know more about American history, geology, or accounting. After all, I am a former dean. I had heard it all before.

But PowerPoint? Everything came to a stop. Zvi said, “PowerPoint!” It was an exclamation, not a question. Here’s how the rest of the conversation unfolded” “Look, the first thing I had to do was start making budget presentations. I had no idea how to make a winning argument.” From the across the table: ” Yeah, we learned how to make technical presentations, but nobody warned us that we’d have to make our point to a boss who didn’t care about the technology.” “It’s even worse where I work,” said a young woman. “Everybody in the room has a great technology to push. I needed to know how to say why mine should be the winner.” And so it went. This was not a PowerPoint discussion. We were talking about Big Animal Pictures. If you understand Big Animal Pictures, you understand how to survive when worlds collide.

via Big Animal Pictures « WWC.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bijan Parsia  |  July 1, 2011 at 4:33 am

    Our undergrad program has several key moments wehre presentation skills emphasized (e.g., second year tutorial has several sessions devoted to presentations and the third year project has a presentation as a key component) as does our PhD program. I’m not sure the difference between a proper technical argument and whatever else there is, but I, at least, emphasize the need to situate the technical work appropriately. Aside from presentation tricks, I think this is a core skill to have!

    For my PhD students, I try to get them thinking about their projects in different modalities, e.g., slogans, research hypotheses, short spiels, etc. It’s often hard to get them to understand (at a suitable level( *what* they’re doing, much less *why*, and even harder to get them to communicate it effectively.

    There’s a regular “writing lay summaries” content to get them to think about describing their work to a general audience.

    Reply
  • 2. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 1, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Everyone else in the school of engineering here gets some training in doing presentations, but not the computer science students (unless they are in the game design major). It is because the skills are mainly taught in the senior design project courses, and the CS students don’t do a senior design project.

    Reply
  • 3. Rob St. Amant  |  July 1, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    I think that this is an issue of “silos” in universities. My department places a good deal of emphasis in our undergrad program on developing speaking, writing, and teamwork skills. Some of this is CS-specific, but a lot of it isn’t really. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that any university graduate should be able to make an effective presentation of their ideas? I’d say this is a basic liberal arts skill, and ideally it would be requirement for graduates in all majors.

    Reply
    • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm

      Presentation styles differ dramatically between disciplines. I would not want an engineering student doing a presentation that was typical of what history professors want, nor would I want a history student doing a presentation typical of what engineering professors want.

      There is an assumption that there is One True Way to do presentations, but there are many different styles and some of the differences are definitely discipline-specific.

      Reply
      • 5. Bijan Parsia  |  July 1, 2011 at 5:49 pm

        Things aren’t typically THAT different. Furthermore, I find it really helpful for students to be exposed to different styles (whether of writing or of presenting).

        At UNC, we had a composition program “Writing across the curriculum” which paired a composition class (by the English dept) with a specific subject class (in my case, philosophy). The composition class covered general writing principles as well as domain specific conventions and issues.

        Which is just to say that handling *systematically* is a good idea.

        Reply
        • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 2, 2011 at 3:14 am

          My experience after teaching tech writing for over a dozen years, including a few classes co-taught with a writing instructor from the humanities, is that even in writing, where the cultural differences are smaller than in presentation, the cultural gulf is still huge.

          The writing 1 and 2 instruction that the students had gotten (almost exclusively from writing instructors trained in the humanities) was nearly useless in preparing them to write scientific or engineering reports. It may have prepared them well for philosophy or history, but not for the sciences or engineering.

          The differences between a conference presentation in the humanities and one in engineering is enormous. It is still considered proper in the humanities to read a lecture verbatim with no visual aids. The view in engineering is that a verbal presentation is an advertisement for the real content in the technical report—it hits only the high points and simplifies away anything that might confuse an executive (which is to say, damn near everything technical). These two approaches to presentation—delivery of full content and advertisement—are fundamentally incompatible. An expert at one is likely to be a terrible teacher of the other.

          Reply
          • 7. Bijan Parsia  |  July 2, 2011 at 7:04 am

            I made the transition from philosophy (grad school; teaching for about 10 years; a professional presentation) to CS (10 years or so, teaching, professional publications, PhD supervision, all sorts of presentations, teaching writing), so have lived both sides of a considerable cultural gap, as I do concede.

            And I just don’t agree that exposure to both forms is harmful or that they would unduly crowd the other out. I’m not saying that neglecting the specific forms is good, but that exposure to a wide variety of forms is helpful.

            And there are obvious commonalities (e.g., vocal production). Furthermore, in this day and age, it’s fairly common for everyone to do presentations of a variety of forms. (E.g., toward the end of my philosophy career, slides were more and more common in philosophy classrooms.)

            Obviously, if you go in teaching only what’s right for your area, it won’t work well.

            Reply
          • 8. Rob St. Amant  |  July 2, 2011 at 10:51 am

            I’m on Bijan’s side in this. The examples Mark gave are of computer scientists having trouble communicating with non-computer scientists. Presentations made by domain specialists to other domain specialists certainly differ, based on the domain, but I can’t see that there are fundamental incompatibilities across all domains. Some basic concepts in communicating ideas remain the same. Use concrete examples to keep the attention of your audience; don’t dive immediately into details without the setting up the appropriate context; organize your presentation so that it flows naturally from one idea to the next. That sort of thing.

            Reply
  • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    I’m not saying that communication should not be taught! Far from it. I was stuck teaching tech writing for over a decade because I insisted that the course be required of computer engineers (and that course did include oral presentation assignments). Even now, I teach presentation skills in senior design courses and grad courses.

    What I was questioning was fobbing off the responsibility for this education onto other departments. It does not work well for writing and it won’t work well for oral communication. If the main faculty the students take classes from don’t care about writing and speaking and are unwilling to provide opportunities for students to write and speak with feedback, then the students won’t learn.

    The tech writing class I started years ago ran very well when there were two computer engineering faculty involved (we each taught it about once a year). Now the course is taught by a hired writing instructor with no engineering background. I’ve heard from students that the content of the course has changed greatly and they no longer get specific, relevant feedback on their writing. They bullshit their way through the papers, under the more-or-less correct belief that no one will call them on it. Until they get to the senior design class, no one does.

    Reply
  • 10. Bijan Parsia  |  July 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    What I was questioning was fobbing off the responsibility for this education onto other departments. It does not work well for writing and it won’t work well for oral communication. If the main faculty the students take classes from don’t care about writing and speaking and are unwilling to provide opportunities for students to write and speak with feedback, then the students won’t learn.

    I agree that fobbing is bad esp. if the fobbee phones it in. OTOH, there’s quite a bit about most forms of writing that can be taught by non-practitioners and some value in be exposed to several forms of writing (if one that there are many forms).

    Contrariwise, there are aspects of various forms of writing which are very specific, e.g., the amount of detail acceptable in a proof sketch, to the subfield. So, I’ve no objection to, indeed great enthusiasm for, additional training.

    Isn’t this basically what we do for other fundamental skills? E.g., stats and calc? We have general versions and select specific version at different levels of specificity.

    Reply

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