Saturday, December 22, 2012

Prezi for teaching linguistics?

This semester I've been using Prezi as a visual aid in my lectures. I decided it would be a useful exercise to summarize my thoughts on it for the benefit of others, since there's no need to reinvent the wheel by discovering all of Prezi's features and flaws.

The conclusion, for those of you with short attention spans, is that I probably won't be using it again, at least not for regular lecturing. But let's start at the beginning.


I used Prezi for eleven one-hour lectures, which constitute the lecture part of the first-year course Introducing English Grammar at the University of Manchester. It's a basic course, designed to get everyone up to speed on a basic framework for understanding English grammar, from those who have no prior knowledge to those who might have substantial experience with grammatical terminology in a different framework. The course is highly terminology-laden: lots of names for things, and lots of tests one can apply in order to identify those things. There were about 220 students on the course this year.

Prezi, for those of you who haven't come across it, is a piece of presentation software marketed as an alternative to Powerpoint (and to Keynote and Beamer, which are basically the same thing: slides), even as a "Powerpoint killer" in some markets. I won't give a full introduction; take a look for yourself at some of the sample presentations on their website if you're interested. The key thing is that instead of just moving from slide to slide you zoom in and out and move around on one giant canvas.

On to the advantages and disadvantages.


  • Wow factor. This is not to be underestimated. Students are a jaded bunch, and it's difficult to impress them with technology; but by and large have responded well to the general look and feel of it. In my mid-term survey, which had 58 respondents, 74% found the presentations to be attractive, and 0% thought they were ugly. (Though this must in part be due to my general awesomeness as a designer, and not entirely to the software...) Obviously this wow factor will diminish the more people use Prezi for teaching.
  • Clearer conveyal of complex arguments. I genuinely believe Prezi is better for this than its slide-based competitors. Let's say you're presenting a list of things, for instance constituency tests. Rather than having a sequence of slides and presenting them one by one, you can have a kind of spider diagram and zoom in to each test in turn. And having some screens embedded in small form within other screens is great for capturing part-whole relations, and relative importance. In short, here I think Prezi lives up to its claims. In the mid-term survey, 41% stated that they found Prezis easier to follow than Powerpoint presentations, and 19% said the opposite.
Some of the positive comments I received in the survey:
  • "I definitely much prefer the prezi presentations compared to powerpoint presentations, and the Grammar lecture is one of my favourites because of this."
  • "The lecture slides are very attractive and engaging which helps make the concepts more memorable."
  • "The way the information is portrayed is much more interesting than a powerpoint presentation, and the examples are always useful to refer back to." 


  • Poor facilities for typography. Prezi has no bold, underline, italic, superscript, subscript, anything like that. This means that using it for linguistics can be very frustrating. (Sure, you can create a "subscript" by creating a new text box and making it smaller, then manually positioning it in the right place. But that's not a sustainable solution.) Writing out formulas, for instance, or labelled bracketings, is virtually impossible. Prezi also gives you an extremely limited colour palette.
  • No tables. You have to draw all the lines by hand, and space it out by hand; it's not impossible, but very tedious.
  • Incredibly time-consuming. You probably figured this one out from the above two, but it's the main barrier to using this software in a sustainable way. Even a very basic lecture, with nothing fancy added, takes hours to create; much longer than it would in Powerpoint, at any rate.
  • Extremely buggy. The browser-based editor, which I used to create all my Prezis, is bugged beyond belief. Sometimes you'll copy-and-paste something, only to have it appear in a random position somewhere else in the presentation. Sometimes, after moving something, it will suddenly decide to spring back to where it came from. Sometimes line breaks will arbitrarily delete themselves. A colleague who used the desktop version of the editor tells me it's no better. This is unbelievably frustrating even for experienced users (I'd now count myself as one). There is a facility to import Powerpoint slides, but it's just as buggy as you'd expect.
  • Massive files, no handouts. You can download a "portable Prezi" to present offline, but the file size is usually between 40 and 50 megabytes. Not useful. Furthermore, it's difficult to create handouts. You can create PDFs of the screens (which are themselves large-ish files; mine were all between 4 and 13 megabytes), but there's no easy way to do, say, 6 per page. (I found a workaround for this, but like many workarounds it's time-consuming; just what you don't need with Prezi.)
  • Not supported on all computers. Though the portable Prezis are supposed to be standalone files, they need a certain version of Flash to work, and apparently need some sort of internet connection (or sometimes do). Anyway, some Manchester computers, such as the ones in the library, simply won't play them.
  • Motion sickness. Though only 2% of students (one) found the lecture presentations to be nausea-inducing, apparently this can be a general problem with Prezi if you do too much panning.
Some of the negative comments I received in the survey:
  • "The prezi presentations are very effective in lectures but when reviewing I haven't found a way of quickly getting to the slide I want except through flicking through all of them. Similarly, they can't be printed off except one to a page, so for both these reasons I prefer powerpoint for slides that I am going to refer to later."
  • "lectures slides are too long it would be very helpful if  you use powerpoint instead"


Overall, then, I'm sad to say that I think the negatives outweigh the positives. The "wow factor", as I noted, is only relevant to the extent that Prezi is a minority technology: if everyone uses it, it will become much less impressive. That leaves its only lasting advantage as the clarity of representation of complex chains of thought. While it's nice to have, it doesn't justify the time and effort spent on creating them, or the additional problems created for students who want handouts.

I therefore can't recommend Prezi for regular lecturing, and won't be using it in that function myself in future. Still, it was a fun experiment, and I've certainly learned from it - and I hope you find this useful too!