From the ivory tower: Adapting PowerPoint to the vidkid generation

June 1, 2006
Sitting in a dimly-lit room listening to the speaker read from Kong-sized slides that follow one after another as rapidly as cards from a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, I am sympathetic to arguments about the downside of innovation - but this sympathy would be misplaced.

By Edward F. Rossomando, DDS, PhD, MS, Professor and Director, Center for Research and Education in Product Evaluation (CRETE), School of Dental Medicine, University of Connecticut, Farmington, CT

Sitting in a dimly-lit room listening to the speaker read from Kong-sized slides that follow one after another as rapidly as cards from a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, I am sympathetic to arguments about the downside of innovation - but this sympathy would be misplaced. The problem is not with innovation, but with its use or, more accurately, its misuse. Microsoft’s PowerPoint, for those who came of age using 2x2 slides for presentations, is a marvelous and valuable innovation.

But whether the innovation is atomic energy or antibiotics, there is always a downside; such is the case with PowerPoint. Computer-generated slides that consist of written text arranged as a series of bullet points, with each bullet point containing multiple sentences that are difficult to read, let alone comprehend, should be a felony. Additional “hard time” should be given to the speaker who agonizingly and literally reads, word for word, the text of each bullet point. A speaker who reads to rather than interacts with the audience is neither imaginative nor serious about utilizing the full possibilities of PowerPoint.

PowerPoint presentations to dental students

The preparation of PowerPoint presentations to dental students is especially challenging and has become even more so with the class of 2008. In a previous article1, I referred to the tech-savvy students born after 1985 as the “video game generation” to differentiate them from their predecessors. These “vidkids” trickled into dental schools about three or four years ago. Soon after their arrival, all students at The University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine are required to have laptops and Internet access. Allowing the vidkids of the class of 2008 to have a laptop with Internet access has changed the balance of power within the lecture room.

Today, instead of faces, the speaker standing in front of the class sees a checkerboard pattern of black laptop screens. What today’s tech-savvy students might be viewing is anybody’s guess. With that sort of distraction, it’s no wonder PowerPoint presentations are often ignored.

The speaker must not only compete with general student boredom and ennui, but with the “freedom of distraction.” With laptops in front of students, they are able to view whatever they want - streaming video clips of their favorite shows, movie trailers, Facebook, MySpace, etc. You think of it, they can view it. The challenge for the speaker is to compete with these distractions and keep the attention of a generation that is above all visually stimulated and seeking interactive components to what they do and see. By adding interactive components that require (not beg) student response - such as streaming video clips rather than just ClipArt - a speaker has a chance against all the possibilities for distraction.

Text messaging and PowerPoint presentations

Instant access to media creates many problems, but nothing compares to the problems spawned when instant communication becomes available to students literally at their fingertips. The temptation to chat with peers overcomes academic discipline and, as a result, important classroom presentations are missed. In addition to the obvious distraction of laptops in the classroom, vidkids now have an even more invidious distraction - the cell phone. While one would think that the cell phone’s potential for distraction can be negated by merely announcing at the beginning of each class, “Please turn off all cell phones and pagers,” such an announcement only stops students from talking on the phone, not from text messaging.

Some insight into how pervasive text messaging has become can be found in the article by Charles McGrath, published in The New York Times Magazine2. McGrath writes about how universal text messaging has become in society worldwide. While his article examines the reasons why text messaging is universal, he also notes that many text messages are sent when the messenger and recipient are within speaking distance of each other - in classrooms, for example. Sitting in on any one of my lectures would verify this statement. Despite requests to turn off cell phones, it is not uncommon to see the electronic glow of cell phones lighting up randomly throughout the lecture hall like fireflies glowing on a summer evening.

Creating a PowerPoint presentation for vidkids

When preparing a PowerPoint presentation for vidkids, we can learn a great deal from McGrath’s observations on text messaging. He notes that text messages are short and to the point. In fact, text messages are sent in a sort of shorthand, or code. One of the best examples, is the :), the colon and parenthesis, to form the “smiley face” that even I use from time to time. He also notes that the code for text messaging is a language unto itself, with its own unique style. He states, “Among inventive users, the younger ones especially, text-messaging has taken on many of the characteristics of hiphop.”2

Clearly, the text-messaging, Internet-browsing vidkids in lecture halls today have neither patience nor interest in reading lengthy bullet points from PowerPoint slides. My recommendation to those planning a PowerPoint slide show is to remember to gain and keep the students’ attention. Keep your slides short and to the point; add interactive, entertaining, and interesting components and visuals; and begin your lecture with the following “text message” on your first slide: “XM 2moro.” This way you can leave the lecture hall “lol” (laughing out loud).


  1. Rossomando, Edward F. Innovations and Entrepreneurship: The Video Game Generation Is Now In Dental School. Compend Contin Educ Dent. 2005;26:800-801.
  2. McGrath, Charles. The Pleasures of the Text. The New York Times Magazine. June 2005;15-19.

Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from one written by Dr. Rossomando and published in the March 2006 issue of the Compendium for Continuing Dental Education.

For additional insights in understanding the Video Game Generation and for assistance in preparation of PowerPoint presentations to vidkids, please contact Dr. Rossomando at [email protected].