Pedagogically sound use of Prezi

Making effective use of Prezi in the classroom.

By Jeremy Ashton Houska, PhD

Teachers of psychology have a number of slideware (presentation) options at their disposal to present material to students. Two of the mainstream options are Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote, but more recently, a canvas software called Prezi has emerged. Prezi is taking hold in some disciplines and circles, and it is likely to come soon to a classroom or conference near you – if it has not already. Instructors, professional speakers and students continue to post presentations created though Prezi (Prezis for short) online for public perusal. These presentations can be an excellent starting point for tech-savvy instructors looking to reinvigorate their classroom instruction or present material in a novel, engaging format. However, the Prezis viewable online could also send new adopters down the wrong path. As someone who has recently adopted Prezi for instructional purposes, I will provide a few suggestions for the pedagogically sound use of Prezi presentation software.

Instructors who adopt Prezi may be able to capitalize on the novelty and unique features of the software. Students who are used to a litany of text-filled PowerPoint slides will likely perk up when presented a visually rich Prezi. More interesting to students, however, is Prezi’s zooming and scrolling to frames containing information. This type of movement is quite different from the slide flipping, transitions or animations possible in PowerPoint. So, early adopters of Prezi can probably engage students while it is new, but I worry about the novelty wearing off. Instructors can retain and harness students’ attention if the Prezi canvas is carefully constructed.

Suggestion 1: Use features prudently

Prezi allows users to import PowerPoint slides as a starting point, but careful construction requires much more than laying bullet-pointed outlines onto a canvas or pasting pictures all over the place. By its nature, Prezi allows a nonlinear path on the canvas. Users can place images, shapes, headings and text anywhere on the canvas, but for any of these to be part of the presentation, they need to be included as part of the path. For instance, a user could place a picture of B.F. Skinner at the far upper right of the endless canvas and a snapshot of John Watson toward the lower left. To ensure both pictures are part of the presentation, the user will have to navigate toward and select Skinner and move to Watson and select his picture. In the process, Prezi could zoom, pan and even flip if the user desires. Just because Prezi will let us twist and turn, it does not mean we should show off these features. Some students may enjoy the powerful cinematic features Prezi affords presenters, but these should be used prudently – once in a presentation if there is a good reason. For instance, if a famous ground-breaking study shook up the scientific community, one may want to punctuate the effect with an animation trick. But if anyone’s stomach is like mine, I would not recommend using animation often.

Suggestion 2: Have a (navigation) plan

The nonlinear nature of Prezi is both a blessing and a curse. One does not need to look too far to find technological train wrecks on the Prezi site. The disorganized nature of some projects suggests that these divergences from convention were not constructed for effect, but haphazard experimentation with a new technological tool. It is very easy for a Prezi presentation to become crammed with too many zooms and a dizzying path if it is created on the fly. Thus, storyboarding, or visually organizing material, is critical. When going through and developing my lesson notes, I am in the habit of drawing an image or writing in the name of a video clip in the margin. This is a first step to storyboarding. Planning out the full view of the canvas, paths to the content frames and panning out to the concluding full view again is also helpful in planning.

Then, it makes sense to decide upon the general path for the presentation. Some of my colleagues use a horizontal navigation plan in which they go to the right for new sections and navigate down as they progress through a section. I prefer to use a clock-wise navigation in which an image is in the middle of a white board or idea wall. I then navigate up to the title of the unit and progress slowly clockwise, until my exit ticket screen is at the 10 or 11 o’clock position of the canvas. This navigation becomes predictable for students because they can tell at about the 7 o’clock position that I am progressing toward a conclusion. And I always make sure to give what Prezi names “the big reveal” at the end of a presentation. That is, zooming back out so the audience can see all of the frames and information that has been presented. At the beginning, I show them what we are going to discuss, and at the end, I reiterate the ground we covered. This mapping of information is not easily accomplished on slideware such as PowerPoint or Keynote.

Suggestion 3: Go offline

I typically use a couple video clips within a lesson to stimulate interest and illustrate concepts. Anyone who has embedded YouTube videos into PowerPoint knows the benefits of going offline rather than streaming from an internet site. A slow network or spotty Wi-Fi can cause videos to buffer, hiccup and pause in the middle of a lesson. So, I have gotten in the habit of downloading videos, when possible, and including them in the same folder as my PowerPoint presentation. That way I am less likely to be a victim of slow bandwidth. The free online version of Prezi allows users to include YouTube URLs and upload a number of video file formats into presentations. For the most part, I have had good fortune presenting video using wired network connections. But due to my experiences with wireless networks and Power Point in the past, I have opted for the paid version of Prezi to get the Prezi Desktop edition. That small annual investment allows me to download my presentation from the online editor to my desktop. That Prezi file (.pez) includes my embedded videos and can be edited without an internet connection.

Verdict

Prezi is another viable option for instructors of psychology, if used prudently. Thus far, I have received positive responses from my students as audience members. And, I will keep using Prezi in the classroom. I have yet to have any students use Prezi for a class presentation, but I am sure that I will in the years to come. This type of presentation software allows for many new options relative to slideware such as PowerPoint or Keynote. But I would again caution adopters from using cinematic effects for sake of the “wow factor.” One of the criticisms of Prezi is the zooming and navigation. My response is this: I have seen some Prezi presentations online that have induced motion sickness, but I see this as much like early PowerPoint presentations with the overuse of transitions and sound effects. That is poor design. So, I would not dismiss Prezi on that basis. But at the same time, I do not think I will be using Prezi at a conference any time soon. Prezi has a time and a place. That place is in the classroom...in my humble opinion.

About the Author

Jeremy Ashton Houska, PhDJeremy Ashton Houska has been an assistant professor of psychology at Concordia University – Chicago since 2010. He received his PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Houska takes great interest in teaching general psychology. He recently co-authored, with Wayne Weiten, a chapter on teaching the introductory course in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Undergraduate Psychology Education. He serves on the editorial boards for the journals Teaching of Psychology, and International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. He also edits the Teaching of Psychology Idea Exchange (ToPIX), an Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology (OTRP) resource. He was honored with the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP)’s Wilbert J. McKeachie Teaching Excellence Award in 2009.