Monday, January 16, 2012

Prezi for Historians?

Chris Beneke

Tired of using PowerPoint in your History teaching? You might consider using Prezi instead. Here are some preliminary thoughts. (Maybe you’ve already seen it used here; for a brief overview, check this out.)


If you make extensive use of in-class readings and don’t want to distribute the texts in paper form, Prezi can help. It allows you to easily pull the texts up and zoom on important passages. Ditto for high resolution pictures and maps. You could post an entire reproduction of a U.S. or world map and quickly zoom around it. That’s handy.

With Prezi you can easily create a vivid and infinitely extendable timeline, connecting it to relevant images, videos, and text. As far as I know, there’s no way to do this in PowerPoint or Keynote.

Beyond that, the most immediately apparent virtue of Prezi is the fact that it allows for nonlinear presentations. If you’re like me and mix lecture and discussion flexibly throughout the class, that’s an especially attractive feature. Of course, PowerPoint and Keynote allow you do this as well. Just not as gracefully.

Finally, you could, theoretically, save a cluster of class materials or even an entire semester’s worth of materials in the same Prezi. This would save students the trouble of slogging through twenty-plus PowerPoint presentations ahead of their final exam and might also encourage them (and you, history teacher) to make stronger connections between class topics.


When it comes to usability, Prezi is often coy, seldom allowing you to predict just what it intends to do. The interface will not feel intuitive to PowerPoint users. Right-clicking gets you nowhere. Formatting options are available, but somewhat mysterious. And as far as I can tell, Prezi places new frames wherever it darn well chooses.

Non-linearity has its advantages, but let’s keep in mind that teachers resort to linear arguments for a reason: they make sense to human beings and are easily recalled. One of the virtues of PowerPoint is that it keeps the digression-prone professor on track. Prezi includes a tool (called “Path”) that allows you to fly from one section to another. By zooming out you can see a riveting overview of your class’s trajectory. This has the aesthetically pleasing effect of launching you up, over, and around the various parts of the presentation. I suspect that this novelty will wear off fast and that Prezi will have to rely on other virtues to retain converts. (Another cute feature—the ability to create tiny hidden text—is likely to make it unnecessarily difficult for students reviewing the presentation to find what they need.)

I’m also worried about preserving Prezis over time. With a subscription, you can download them to your computer. You can also save the entire presentation for static use as a .pdf. I don’t find either option reassuring. Prezi’s novelty and its isolation from an existing office sweet offer additional reasons for pause.

This Prezi on jazz bassists illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of the software. Though beautiful and moderately instructive, the gratuitous twisting and zooming is dizzying. You can also see that the presentation includes five or so embedded YouTube videos and that one of them isn’t working.

Overall Evaluation

Prezi should appeal to the teacher who needs the technological structure that presentation software provides but also wants to encourage active learning. The ease with which users can vault from timeline, to text, to image, to video—and back again—is certainly alluring. The capacity to zoom into and out of images, including portraits, photographs and maps, should especially charm historians.

In the end, Prezi’s primary contribution to history instruction may be on the teaching side of the teaching-learning enterprise. It should force us to think more rigorously and creatively about the connections residing within our class materials. For that reason alone, it’s worth a try.

* Here’s a tiny text caveat: I tried Prezi for the first time in a local Teaching American History session this past week. The feedback hasn’t come back to me yet, but I got the distinct impression that the results were mixed. In addition to the usual assortment of images and maps that any PowerPoint might include, I pasted in some very long selections from Lincoln’s 1842 Temperance Address. That was a mistake. I ended up reading aloud for extended periods. Looking back, Prezi’s zoom-function may have been the cure to the this disease of my own making. In sum: While you may be tempted to post a large selection from a speech, article, or book chapter, you should resist the urge. But longer excerpted text selections are definitely possible with Prezi.


Randall said...

Chris: I like the look of Prezi. It seems like the transitions are the main difference--going from one slide to the next. It makes me wonder if Keynote will pick up on this in the future.

Chris Beneke said...

I think the transitions are what capture your attention immediately (it did mine). The real teaching value seems to be in the extendability of maps, timelines, images, and text, along with the ability to zoom in on particular parts of each.