Friday, May 04, 2007

Process, Product and Presentation

I often try to think of ways of reducing complex situations to simpler ones, for the purpose of explanation, management and support. The danger in this, of course, is that something complicated, with a lot of connections, forces and combinations of underlying technologies IS really complicated. So, eventually, someone has to deal with the fact the situation is not simple in order to adequately support it.

With that caveat, I think that a student's educational experience in a course can be distilled to three things:

1. The process of learning. The interaction between teacher and student, student and the rest of the world, and interactions within the student themselves.

2. The visible end product or products of that process. These are created by the student or study group, and can be simple or elaborate. The goal of having some end-products in a student's portfolio seems an increasingly important tool in job searches. In addition, creating finished products as part of an educational activity, that we can be proud of, is a reward in itself. I still have some of the better term papers I wrote over 40 years ago, along with a few paintings, stashed in the basement. I get a pretty good feeling when I run across them.

3. The student's presentation of the created product to an intended audience. Verbal or formal presentations are becoming more common as part of the educational experience. (Many being PowerPoint shows!) This gets into the areas of public speaking, time management, and also affects design decisions at the beginning of project creation. These are sometimes ignored.

A little story about time management and design decisions. I let one of my student assistants work on her PowerPoint class presentation at work recently, as she was all caught up on her work with us. I noticed it was fairly complex, with 25 slides. I asked, and was allowed to, attend her oral class presentation. At the beginning, the faculty member reminded them that they only had 15 minutes to make their presentation. I divided 25 by 15, and knew she could not get through almost two slides in each minute! She rushed through her slides (I have never heard her speak so rapidly), and the professor gave her an extra 5 minutes at the end (standing up discreetly at one side, but looking slightly uncomfortable). Although the presentation went well, with very original content, it would have been a better experience for everyone if either the students were given more time to explain complex concepts, or if our student had somehow managed to leave out or distill important information. This may not be a typical presentation, but it was given by a senior in the top 5% of her class.

The presentation area is one where students can use more systematic support and training, in my opinion.

The extreme failed presentation, of course, is described in Edward Tufte's analysis of how an inadequate PowerPoint show probably contributed to NASA's Challenger disaster.

Naturally the three areas of Process, Product and Presentation are related to each other. By thinking of them as 3 different concepts, it may make it easier to support each one.