Creative presentations with Prezi and infographics28-May-2012
Whether it’s the information age’s endless data streams or the seemingly infinite English lexicon, it’s easy to see how students can often feel overwhelmed by the data they are expected to process. I believe the solution lies in giving them more creative control over their learning and in this week’s post we will look at a few tools which allow students to filter and communicate ideas in their own ways:
1. Prezi – a unique presentation tool, which allows users to create zooming non-linear narratives, like this one on Guinness’ marketing mix.
2. Easel.ly – a new site where students can present information visually in a variety of infographic styles. Here’s one about world language and population growth.
3. Wordle – a very easy-to-use word cloud generator, for nice ‘plays on words’, like this one on synonyms for change or this one on collocations for problem.
OK, so they look nice, but is that it? Well, no. I think these activities can actually have quite a profound effect on the learning experience.
‘A design disposition’
Craig Watkins coins the term ‘design disposition’ in reference to how young people in the digital age expect not only to be consumers of media, but also to be content producers; expressing themselves creatively across a range of social networks. And thanks to the wide availability of all kinds of software, including websites like those above, they can now design things to look professional and really beautiful. Not just hand drawn scribbles on sheets of A3, but designs they can truly take care in producing and be proud to display to their classmates and beyond.
And when things are designed beautifully, we simply engage with them more. Take my iPad: yes, the functionality is amazing and effortless, but the slick design of the hardware and interface play just as important a role. The point is that as students explore their design sensibilities in producing creative work online, they are also engaging with the content on a deeper level. There’s a personal investment there and if we can harness this in our learning activities, so much the better.
As David McCandless, the author of Information is Beautiful, points out, we live in a very visual culture these days and so we ‘demand a visual aspect to our information’. Similarly, technologist Jesse Schell argues that ‘the 21st century is all about making things beautiful, customised, shared and real’, while he laments the fact that education sometimes lags behind this ideal.
Yes, information is beautiful. And so is learning. By tapping into design more, we can help students to experience this and to revel in the development of their overall growth as communicators.
A new landscape: patterns and narratives
Another aspect of the tools profiled in this post is that they allow students to construct their own non-linear narratives. They are free to creatively explore different kinds of patterns and relationships between points rather than having their thought processes stifled within strictly linear formats. Both Prezi and Easel.ly allow them the pleasure of creative control (although the latter is still in an early developmental stage). Points can be easily organised around concepts (which I think allows for a deeper awareness of synthesis), while each individual cluster of ideas can still be seen in the wider context of the whole presentation. Importantly, the pathways between concepts are also up to the students to decide.
With a tool like PowerPoint we can only really see one slide at a time, so it’s difficult to visualise wider and sometimes more interesting patterns between points. As a recent report in the Wisconsin English Journal highlights, ‘Prezi is a transformative tool that builds students’ abilities to present information through logical, visual, and spatial relationships’. The canvas is opened up for greater exploration, with students put in charge of the information flow, rather than being straightjacketed within a pre-arranged template.
In a convincing case against the revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, Shelley Wright argues that creativity should be the driver of learning, particularly in the Google age where our knowledge needs are different. For a long time, I have felt that EFL and EAP materials and activities often underestimate lower-level learners who are seen as not yet ‘ready’ to engage in more meaningful and creative activities. But can this make sense when the deeper engagement evidenced in creative activities surely leads also to a deeper level of cognition and therefore more effective learning?
When my students are doing creative things with the content, they are personalising it and owning it in a way that helps them process the information and gain a sense of control and ownership over it. Combining, analysing, evaluating and organising ideas are in themselves creative choices they are making and these choices strengthen their relationship with the language they are learning.
In the end, this is perhaps the ultimate beauty of all the online tools I have written about in the past few weeks: that they allow for such a wonderful array of creative choices; choices for learners to learn and for educators to educate and elevate.