Getting More from What You Have: Making Powerful Points

I spent a good deal of my time this past month preparing for and presenting workshops for two different groups of educators I have been working with, one of which is a cadre of language coaches who work with teachers to address the needs of English language learners. We’ve been exploring different technologies to support teaching and learning, and I focused much of our work on the process of creating digital stories using presentation software as a means to learn about using multimedia in the classroom. In others words, we used Microsoft PowerPoint to support teaching and learning. Even though it wasn’t designed for educators, it’s a really powerful tool that has the potential to support a variety of teaching needs. It’s also an application most teachers and students have access to, so I thought I’d share some of those ideas with you as a continuation of my series on using what you have.

Before we get started, let me say that I use both Windows and Macintosh Operating Systems and am familiar with PowerPoint, Keynote, and OpenOffice. You can accomplish most of the tasks I’ll present here on any of these applications, but perhaps because PowerPoint is so widely accepted in the business world, there are a few additional things you can do with it that you can’t do with the others, yet. I’m a big believer in the idea that if a technology feature is popular in one application, you’ll soon find it on others. I am also not going to include step-by-step instructions, but will try to guide you towards key menu items or functions to look for. The steps can change, even over subsequent versions of the same software. When in doubt, try two things: 1) right-click on an object to see what options you have, or 2) search the help menu.

Learning from Stories

I use digital storytelling as a framework for helping teachers learn about multimedia because it’s easy for people to relate to. Teachers often use or tell stories in their teaching. As a young teacher, I had to learn to tell fewer stories, or so my students would probably tell you. But you don’t necessarily have to follow a formal digital storytelling process to use the techniques associated with it (Leah, perhaps you can link to my previous article on Digital Storytelling from March). You might consider keeping a journal, a digital portfolio, or even a lab journal in science as storytelling. Following are just a few ways you can use presentation software to support teaching and learning based on skills you can learn from creating digital stories.

Conduct research and organize information. When I’m wearing my instructional designer hat, I use presentation software to create storyboards that present and organize information. I can keep notes, including pertinent research, either on a slide or in the notes field with a more formal reference list on the last screen. And by displaying the slides in the “sorter” view, I can reorganize my information easily. For long projects, I will color-code the slide backgrounds so I know which slides correspond to which topics. I put major concepts on the slide and the detail in the notes. After my research is over, I finalize the text and images on my slides for my formal presentation.

Revision and reorganization are common to many research projects, and presentation software makes it very easy. You can provide templates to students to support a project, either a formal research project or a more personalized story, and they can keep all of their information in one place. Presentation software will support images they’ve found or have created with a camera or scanner, notes from primary resources, URLs for pertinent websites, and even audio and video clips.

Create or edit graphics and images to augment written or spoken text. There are several standalone photo and image editors and design tools available, but the learning curve for some of these can be steep. Most teachers and students are already familiar with presentation software, and can use it to quickly create custom graphics. You can insert an image or clip-art graphic to a slide usually through a simple Insert command. Graphics that support learning often include labels or guides to focus the learner. You can add arrows, highlighting, shapes, or text to a graphic easily. You can also usually change the style, color, or opacity of an image to make text or other information stand out. (See example 1)

URL image + Student at Computer +
Student at Computer 2 + MP3 Player =
Image edited in PowerPoint

Example 1. Images from combined and edited in PowerPoint

It’s easy to find images online, but make sure you are following copyright or licensing requirements. Two websites to visit for images you and your students are likely to be able to use for free are Wikimedia Commons and You can search Wikimedia Commons and each picture on the site will include a statement about how it can be used, such as whether you need to provide attribution or whether you can edit it or not. searches all of Flickr, the popular photo-sharing site, for images based on keywords you enter. In your search, select the “Creative Commons: ON” setting to find images you are most likely to be able to use. No matter where you find your images, make sure you check the copyright or licensing rights.

Presentation software, like PowerPoint, often comes with several different clip-art galleries installed, but there are many others you can download for free from the Microsoft website. Clip art is actually a combination of drawn elements (lines, shapes, and fills) that you can actually ungroup and edit (this function can often be found in the Arrange or Grouping menus). You can delete sections of a clip art graphic, recolor it, or combine elements from one clip art graphic with another (see example 2). Clip art also usually resizes better than photos, including enlarging, with very little loss of fidelity. I won’t go into the reason here.

Clip Art Example 1 + Clip Art Example 2 =
Combined Clip Art Image

Example 2. Clip-Art from Microsoft edited and combined in PowerPoint

After you’re done designing your graphic, you can export your slides as images (either one at a time or all of them at once) that you can use in other applications, such as on a class website, a presentation on an interactive whiteboard, or inserted into a document. They can also be used for more “video-like” digital stories created in PhotoStory, MovieMaker, or iMovie. And the export process tends to reduce the file size of your image, making it more practical for use online. In PowerPoint, you can export a single slide by first grouping all of the elements on the slide, right-clicking on your slide, and select “Save as Picture.” Of course, you can also export your entire presentation as shows that cannot be edited, but these may not be able to be shown online, especially since they may be quite large files depending on how much media you’ve inserted.

Address multiple forms of language representation. Obviously, presentation software supports written language. You or your students can create text elements on the slide or in the notes area that can be read individually or in group settings. But you or your students can include audio to provide support for listening and speaking or to augment the written text onscreen.

Some presentation software allows you to record directly into a presentation, either on a slide-by-slide basis or as a narration across slides. Narrations are harder to pull off, as you usually have to go back to the beginning of a narration if you make a mistake. Inserting sound by slide is easier to control and edit. At the very least, you’ll have a shorter section to re-record if you make a mistake. You can have your recorded sounds play automatically or force the viewer to click on something (look for an “automatic” vs. “on-click” setting) to hear them.

You or your students can also record or edit pre-recorded audio clips in an external application, which gives you more flexibility in terms of editing and the quality of the recording. The free application Audacity by SoundForge is very easy to use and is cross-platform. You’ll want to export your Audacity files into something your presentation software can use, such as a .WAV or .MP3 file. GarageBand is a free application on the Mac OS that allows you to create sound files that you can import into iTunes and then can be pulled into KeyNote or exported for use in PowerPoint. The best advice I can offer is use a microphone you plug into your computer, not the internal microphone.

If you record your audio in an external program, you can actually insert multiple audio files on the same slide in a presentation that you can trigger by different actions. You can create multiple buttons (by adding a shape) and link a different sound file to each (the sound is usually considered an “animation”). That means you can record a soundtrack in multiple languages, or have audio clips from different people to demonstrate different dialects or accents, and your users can pick the most pertinent one. Students can even record themselves speaking and use different presentation files they’ve created over time as a digital portfolio of their growth in language development.

Differentiate learning by providing scaffolding. The idea of providing optional audio is one aspect of scaffolding learning for different levels of ability. You can record examples or create an audio glossary for critical vocabulary within a presentation that students can access only if they need to. Having audio tracks both in English and a student’s native language can support English language learners or those learning a foreign language.

Presentation software also supports hyperlinking of objects and text. You can embed a link to a URL of related website to a text or a picture in your presentation that will open on your computer’s browser. You can also link to other screens in the presentation, or even different documents, so that students have greater control over their learning. You can link students to an assessment after completing a presentation, or have supplementary or enrichment material for those students who need them. Students who have already mastered concepts in one part of a presentation can follow a link to a later part of the presentation, or others may want to return to previous information for additional practice. If you’re creating a set of linked information, make sure to keep them all in the same folder or relative location when you distribute them. Otherwise you might break the links and your presentation won’t be able to find the appropriate document.

And don’t discount the value of your students creating their own multimedia presentations to differentiate their learning needs, whether they create reports about a country of study, personal stories they create on their own, or support for oral presentations. Based on your students’ ability levels—both language and technology skills—you can allow them all to address the same content standards but to do so with great flexibility in terms of student products.

Focus on Your Outcomes

In closing, I need to offer you the same caveat you might want to share with your students. Playing with these features can be a lot of fun, but can become time consuming. You can really get caught up in the technology. Stay focused on your teaching or learning outcomes, and don’t let the technology take precedence. Only use what is necessary to get your point across, but do have some fun along the way.

I hope you try some of these ideas to support teaching and learning in your classroom. If you’d like to see a short digital story I put together for these workshops, you can view it at The example was created in PowerPoint and Audacity first, imported into MovieMaker, and exported for display on the web. Please feel free to contact me and let me know if you’ve used these or other ideas with presentation software. I enjoy getting feedback from you and will try to respond to additional requests for information through e-mail or future editions of this TechTips article.

Resources for more information

Audacity by SoundForge
Free, cross-platform sound editor
Search tool for Flickr. Make sure you select the “Creative Commons: ON” setting.
Free images.

Wikimedia Commons
Media in a variety of formats that you may be able to use. Files use Creative Commons licensing.

Microsoft Clip-Art Galleries
Free images for school use