Sunday, February 21, 2016


Here at the ILT program at UC Denver there is an emphasis on effective design. There is a set of basic design principles taught in each class, summed up with the acronym CARP. It stands for Contrast, Alignment, Repetition, and Proximity. Go ahead and Google it – there are a zillion ways available to describe, explain, and illustrate these principles.

But why CARP? CARP is certainly shorthand for something – the premise is that by following these principles, your design will be “correct” or “good” in some sense. There must be some fundamental mechanism at work, though, undergirding these principles.

Consider any document that you design. What are you trying to do with it? You are trying to communicate, at least initially. Perhaps you are trying to sell something, or convince someone of something. In my case, I am always trying to teach something. I need to consider how a person learns and try to align my document with how learning works.


There are two aspects of learning that I want to address here. One is the broad principle of engagement. Without engagement, your document is effectively ignored. Without the right kind of engagement, your document will be less effective as a teaching medium. Visual clutter and confusion, for instance, creates a kind of anxiety as the eye tries to figure out where to go. This is not conducive to learning. Nor are extraneous visual elements which can be entertaining or decorative but also distracting or confusing.

Garr Reynolds presents the CARP principles in the first edition (2008) of his Presentation Zen (p. 153). I think it’s telling that he replaces CARP in his second edition (Presentation Zen Design, 2013) with principles related to beauty, balance, and harmony, states of mind conducive to learning (p. 221). Not coincidentally, these principles are applicable to digital modes of presentation, like video, audio, and synchronous eLearning, for which the CARP principles may not apply as readily.

Coherence and Structure

The second aspect of learning I want to address is an aspect that concerns me as a physics teacher. It is possible to teach physics as a collection of vaguely related topics and practices, but I prefer to teach physics by constantly referring back to the coherent series of basic concepts on which it is built. When I design a document for my students, I try to be careful about what my design implies. Is it implying a connection where there is none, or is it implying levels of organization that do not, in fact, exist? Or does the design reflect the coherence and structure in physics that I hope my students can sense?

Microsoft’s PowerPoint is a common document format, a tool that seems to result in notoriously incoherent design. A classic critique of PowerPoint design is Edward Tufte’s essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (2006). Tufte explains in detail the kind of structural incoherence that can come about when a designer does not pay attention to structural levels of information.

A designer needs to know that all graphic elements carry information, not just in the literal sense (these letters form a sentence which can be understood) but in a structural sense. When a font changes color, for instance, the brain is alerted to the possibility of a new level of information for the literal text. Consider, for instance, what happens when text in a blog post changes color to indicate that the text is a hyperlink. Or consider, as Tufte does, what it means to create bullet points. Bullets are not just a graphical device for separating text. Bullets are like the headings in an outline. They indicate levels of organization arranged coherently according to some principle or concept. Hinting at organization when in fact what you are presenting is arbitrarily arranged causes confusion. It does not create a frame of mind conducive to learning.

It can take a lifetime to discover and absorb the principles of how a person learns from a document, and how that learning can be augmented or interfered with by the graphic design. With the easily remembered principles of CARP, a designer at least stands a chance of producing attractive and effective presentations without having to become a metaphysician of design, communication, and learning.


Reynolds, G. (2014). Presentation zen design: Simple design principles and techniques to enhance your presentations (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Tufte, E. R. (2006). The cognitive style of PowerPoint: Pitching out corrupts within (2nd ed.). Cheshire, CT: Graphics.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Critique of My First Webinar (Attended)

Project Based Learning for Every Classroom
2/4/16, 5PM – 6PM EST
Facilitated by Kimberleigh Doyle, Nureva (corporate sponsor)
Presented by Rachel Langenhorst, K-12 Technology Integrationist and Instructional Coach

Project Based Learning is a specific approach to using projects in the classroom. This webinar was an introduction to PBL, with details about the specific approach of PBL to classroom projects, and summaries of and links to various resources and tools.

There were over 450 participants(!), so there was no interactive learning. Sadly, the webinar was pretty much a narration of a bunch of slides. It occurred to me that a webinar was the wrong tool for this kind of presentation - pretty much any kind of asynchronous medium would have been better.

The presenter was very professional. Her voice was pleasant and practiced, but not particularly engaging. She was, in essence, simply narrating a collection of uninspiring slides. The room she was in was a pretty boring modern office, but at least it wasn’t distracting. The slides were easy to read, and the overall design was simple and reasonably consistent. The graphics used were arranged haphazardly and were not particularly engaging, but they were at least relevant.

The facilitator, on the other hand, was clearly not practiced, or even very organized. She was not paying attention to her voice quality or projection. Sunlight was coming in through the windows behind her which caused the camera to lower the exposure, making her harder to see. The miscellaneous clutter on the wall behind her was a bit distracting.

It was useful that the slides had live links in them – I could have clicked on them and opened them up if I wanted to. Because the webinar was recorded and is available to me to review, I was OK with the fact that there were no handouts.

I have to say that the experience was rather dreadful and a bit demoralizing. I would use this experience as an example of what NOT to do with a webinar. I felt exactly the way I have felt during some professional development sessions at my school workplace – information that I could have read and understood in about 10 minutes or watched in a 20 minute video being stretched out into a 2-hour presentation with relatively meaningless interaction.

I was thankful that the presenter did not narrate the slides verbatim at least. But otherwise, I am perfectly capable of viewing and reading a slide presentation on my own. I also thought it was ironic that the presenter referred to Project Based Learning many times as an alternative to lecture/explanation/presentation-based education, when what she was doing was essentially lecturing to me for an hour.

I did come to understand that with over 450 participants this webinar was going to have only minor interaction. Pretty much all the interaction was going on in the chat window. It seemed that the instant the webinar began there also began non-stop chatting among the participants. It was weird – everybody chatted as if they all knew each other and were maybe just carrying on a conversation that had been going on all day. It was incredibly distracting. I couldn’t understand how any of the chatting participants were able to pay attention to the presenter or to the slides. I understand the concept of a back channel, but this was ridiculous. And comments arrived right on cue, too – “Oh, that’s a great resource, I use it all the time!” And when the webinar ended, there were dozens and dozens of “Thank-you! It was so informative!” when in fact it hadn’t really been that informative. I actually began to suspect that most of the comments (and maybe the participants) were planted by the webinar sponsor.

This webinar made me think a lot about synchronous versus asynchronous learning/teaching. In particular, it seems to me that if something can be presented asynchronously, then it probably should be. The synchronous presentation should be saved for a smaller audience, allowing for real interaction and active learning.

I’ll finish with a final note about the webinar presentation tool. It was called AnyMeeting, and I guess it used to be called InstantPresenter. The program did not have a particularly attractive interface, but I was able to figure out the various tools (and the facilitator provided some instructions too, which I appreciated). There was one full window divided into 4 frames, which could all be resized. The video window and the slide window, when resized, also changed the size of the contents, which was great. Frames with text (like the chat frame) did NOT increase the size of the text. Because I was using a tablet, the text font-size was about 6 or 8 pt, way too small for me to read easily. Using the browser to increase the size of the window elements only caused AnyMeeting to resize the text back down, which was very annoying.