Prezi as a higher learning tool

By Ian Handsley

The first time I used Prezi I was inflicted with a mild dose of motion sickness. It was during my first week at the LSU and David DeBrot had mentioned it in one of our many discussions about alternatives to zombie teaching practices (PowerPoint, in that instance). Having never heard of Prezi, I quickly sent my browser to and after an hour or so of wrapping my head around the so-called ‘Zooming Presentation Editor’, I became a little unsteady on my feet (or, as it was at the time, on my backside). Prezi, if you don’t know, has the capability to segue between ‘slides’ using a ‘rotate animation’. This is nothing more than a gimmick, and it’s overused and abused by Prezi novices such as yours truly back on that fateful day.

Actually, much of Prezi can be considered gimmicky. It runs Flash software, so it’s automatically leaning toward the all-form-no-function side of information technologies. Those early adopters who binned PowerPoint in favour of Prezi most probably impressed their audiences with their shiny new Flash-based presentations, but the sceptics of the education world quickly deemed Prezi pretty but pretentious, and it has since received mixed reviews. It seems that Prezi’s Flash focus on the zooming, transitioning and moving aspects of visuals in presentations even has some educators stating that they hate it.

I’ve worked with people who have also voiced their disapproval of Prezi, but almost always it’s had something to do with the motion sickness resulting from the presenter’s abuse of Prezi’s rotate animation. And that’s a shame, because once I stopped rotating the Prezi canvas and started using it for my learning development efforts, I discovered that it’s a very functional innovation. That innovation is this: non-linear representations of information, not for the audiences who experience the presentation, but rather for presenters who author it. Using Prezi as a presentation/information tool requires the presenter to process information differently to how one would with PowerPoint, and the results can be impressive. Basically, Prezi mediates an entirely new perspective on the topics we are presenting or researching. It’s a powerful learning tool.

The difference between linear and non-linear representations of information is important to explain. To that end, it’s perhaps useful to think of presentations as a movie. The PowerPoint approach would be to create the movie scene by scene as a slide show, from the beginning through to the end, with each slide taking up the entire screen and being on a different ‘zooming’ level: tight close ups of facial expressions, wide shots of landscapes and so on. Basically, the movie editor (the presenter) decides the sequence so as to create the narrative and achieve the desired impact on the audience. Once it’s finished, it’s a line of images through which there is only one path; a linear representation of information.

Prezi’s non-linear nature allows for an entirely different approach. Imagine you started with the whole concept in front of you, albeit as a blank canvas, and you began to represent it textually or graphically (or both). By zooming into a part of that imagery you would start to consider the more specific aspects of that part of the movie – characters, events, places, etc. If you zoomed out you would then begin to see how these more specific components are positioned within the whole. You could then choose a different part of the movie to zoom into and create another set of relationships between people, places and events. Once you made the decision that there is enough information on the canvas, you would start creating a linear path through it, which would then be how the audience experienced the movie. So, the final Prezi movie would be just like the PowerPoint movie: linear. But—and these are the important differences—the Prezi’s conceptualisation was entirely non-linear, the audience would only see a very small part of the whole thing, and there are an infinite number of ‘movies’ possible for each Prezi.

“So what!” I hear you say. Well, admittedly, this idea would hardly rock the higher-ed world to its foundations, but I recently had an experience teaching in a tightly coordinated summer EAP intensive for post-graduate students here in Japan, and I found that Prezi was a great help for coming to terms with all the course materials and supporting documentation. How I used Prezi to make sense of what was quite daunting educationally and administratively will perhaps demonstrate how Prezi can transform mundane presentation authoring into powerful learning experiences.

Like a lot of universities in Japan, this particular institution relied heavily on reams and reams of paper. At the beginning of the course I was given no fewer than 3 student texts (2 of which were written in-house), 3 teacher books, 2 books of supplementary materials, 2 course guides, numerous individual print outs of assessment materials and a general overview of the course schedule. I had 2 large binders full of yellow, white and pink photocopies. Sheesh!

Fortunately I had a few days to process it all  before I had to teach, and fortunately the materials were sound, but it was very much a case of too much information at the beginning of my stay there, especially since I just wanted to get down to the business of creating lessons. But as I began to plan those lessons, I found that I had at least 6 books open in front of me, as well as a handout or two lying on the floor. It was madness, and trying to find the right book with the right information was driving me crazy. But the most frustrating thing for me was trying to come to terms with the entire course. I needed to understand how learning materials were aligned with assessment, but because of the way the information had been given to me, I was struggling to do that.

At that point, however, I already knew I would use Prezi to present in the classroom, and I knew that PDF files could be uploaded to the Prezi canvas, so I realised I had a solution to this 6-open-books-on-the-desk problem: upload everything to Prezi and work only from the Prezi canvas. Fortunately I had access to the university’s servers, so I found the PDFs I needed, uploaded everything to my course Prezi, and happily banished the binders to my shelving so that they may, with the rest of humanity’s antiquated technologies, quietly gather dust.

With about 200 pages of PDFs uploaded to it, my Prezi was hardly a picture of neat organisation and it took a while to load, but what I had in front of me was something like a ‘course universe’ which I could explore, make sense of and rearrange as I saw fit. Importantly, at this stage I wasn’t actually making anything students would see, but rather I was just learning about the course – the schedule, the materials, the assessment, and the connections that I would need to make between them via the learning activities I would design. Because all objects in a Prezi can be copied, moved, enlarged or shrunk, I was able to group individual documents logically so that, for example, all assessment materials (instruments, instructions, rubrics etc) were now grouped together rather than in 2 or 3 books strewn across my desk. When it came time to plan for assessment, I simply needed to navigate to that part of my Prezi.

There was another genuine benefit to this approach—everything I had done to the Prezi with regards to organising and processing could now, with only a few clicks, become a part of my in-class presentations, which I had created on the same Prezi canvas. Using Prezi’s framing capability, I could include parts of students’ textbooks in the presentations, thereby keeping student’s faces out of books and on the screen, and thereby making my own preparation for each class much more efficient and far more effective. To go back to my movie metaphor, the movie’s production and direction could now be made a part of the movie itself.

But perhaps the single greatest benefit of using Prezi to learn about this course and eventually teach it was that the Prezi included everything relating to the course and I could add to it at any time. The ‘course universe’ of my Prezi kept everything in context and made it very easy for me to position individual elements of it within the entire thing. That is, I could see where everything fit in. But most importantly, I could also see where things didn’t fit. I could see where there were discontinuities in the learning progression, and where there was an alignment issue between, say, assessment and learning materials. The power of Prezi in this instance was in helping me to visualise the relationships between different elements in the course and, eventually, to understand how those relationships were related – meta-relationships.

Identifying relationships between relationships is arguably the holy grail of higher learning, and if we accept that as higher educators we are also higher learners, any tool which can mediate the learning of and critical insight into complex abstractions such as curriculum design—or whatever other concept that perplexes academics in your particular specialty—deserves our attention. Much of our professional lives are spent either authoring presentations or delivering them, so imagine a scenario where the time spent making a presentation is also time spent forging original understandings and insights into the concepts it addresses. Also, imagine creating ‘concept universes’ for our own research or learning which can be quickly and very easily adapted to the needs of an audience or transformed into a self-access resource for students. Prezi can mediate these advances in teaching and learning.

And really, Prezi is a great visual experience for audiences when you purge the gimmicky animations and apply some basic design principles. I’m pretty sure it was my students’ first experiences with it, but I think it gave the class a sense of innovation and sophistication. Some of my students were even keen to use it for their assessment since the course was generally about giving academic presentations, but unfortunately they were required to use ye olde PowerPoint. The seed was sewn, however, and I think it’s inevitable that PowerPoint will eventually join those dusty binders of mine on the zombie-technology shelves.

So if anything I’ve written here has, as I’ve hoped, piqued (or re-piqued) your interest in Prezi, there is a wealth of easy-to-follow instructables online. A good place to start would be here. If you work in education and have a dot-edu email address, Prezi offers an educational license which provides some important additional functionality, and it’s all free. Indeed, its community of educators is loud and active, and can be visited here. If you have a large, daunting and/or perplexing project on your plate at the moment, Prezi may well be the right learning tool for you, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Good luck!

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