Very early in my teaching at university I had the opportunity to work with a group of colleagues from other disciplines who wanted to test if you could teach oral communications successfully in the online learning environment. It was just after that, that I attended a conference where students gave presentations using a Pecha Kucha format. This is where the presenter has 20 slides, each of which can only be displayed for 20 seconds, making a highly dynamic and mostly visual presentation that is engaging and concise (6 minutes and 40 seconds, to be exact) – I was hooked!
How many of us have been subjected to ‘death by PowerPoint’ – slide after slide of bullet points with small font, too many words, and complex graphics that need to digested in a short number of seconds? More importantly, how many of us know that one of the great failures of sustainability science has been an inability to communicate complex content in an accessible way to broad audiences outside our own circles. In our role as facilitators of student learning, how many of us provide serious opportunities for our students to explore alternate approaches to developing communication skills outside the very important, but dominant, written assessment tasks?
In my courses students presented one aspect of course content to one another and then explored that content by discussing it together with the aid of student designed questions and student mediated facilitation. I decided I wanted to see if I could replace the written report used by students to initiate discussions (one of three written assessment tasks in the course at the time!) with this very different way of communicating.
But as I was doing some research for our multi-disciplinary report exploring the student experience of learning oral communications online I came across a number of articles which suggested that providing video information by itself may not maximise student learning. There were also other practicalities to consider. For instance hearing impaired students would clearly be disadvantage by Pecha Kucha presentations – having serious implications for equity in the online learning environment where I do my teaching.
Despite the excitement I felt about the dynamic possibilities of Pecha Kucha communication, I felt I had to step back to reassess its real value for student learning before I used it routinely in my assessment tasks.
After more reflection it seems that it is possible for students to produce highly enjoyable and informative presentations whilst at the same time, allowing for different learning styles. By providing a transcript (the notes that students use to prepare the presentations content) along with their presentations, we can ensure that students can choose to use the written content together with the visual and audio to suit their particular learning styles. Hearing impaired students can read the transcript and enjoy the images, whilst the format is highly suitable to vision impaired students. The transcript also provides a place for students to document their references and the sources for their images, thus complying with plagiarism requirements.
I must say, I really enjoy watching these presentations – they are a real joy to mark. The format also seems to provide variety from the more traditional written assessment tasks for students. One student noted:
‘I really enjoyed this assignment. It broke up the monotony of always writing essays and I appreciated the creative side of putting it together’ and
‘I think this is a wonderful way of teaching, reading at times can become overwhelming and a visual format of learning provides a greater balance for all styles of learning’
The student comments I have received also indicate that students appreciate thorough guidance and support from the instructor when they undertake new tasks like this for the first time. To that end I have shared the teaching resources I use to support students to produce high quality Pecha Kucha presentations at the university’s online teaching Community of Interest blog.
On reflection, I think the skills students get from being able to make and share presentations using the Pecha Kucha mean that they are empowered to increase both the effectiveness and reach of their communication. Communication using a range of means to a range of different audiences is such an essential skill if they are to graduate with the ability to address the challenges of our time collaboratively.
You can experience the power of this communication format yourself through this wonderful presentation by Jennifer Bates about the Gross National Happiness Indicator, which she created whilst living in Bhutan. It’s an exceptional demonstration of communicating an aspect of environmental complexity in an accessible yet sophisticated way. Enjoy!