Powerpoint in eLearning: Part 1- Presentation Pushed Aside by Authoring

Powerpoint in eLearning

Powerpoint is one of the most popular business tools in use today. And when it comes to making presentations I’ll just take a guess and say that it is number one. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong on that. But the point is that it’s very popular, and useful. Nobody would use it if it wasn’t meeting their needs. Classroom trainers use it for presentations. eLearning developers use it to storyboard. Rapid eLearning developers use powerpoint presentations as a good starting point. You can even use it to make images (.jpg) and movies. But it wasn’t always embraced so openly by the designers and developers of computer-based training. It started as most software apps do with very humble beginnings. Now it’s features are as complex as you need them to be. Some may say too complex. How does a simple slide show presentation system turn into the most used tool in corporate training?

I only recently learned that Powerpoint didn’t start out as powerpoint. It was originally called Presenter. And even more shocking than that, Presenter was developed for the Macintosh. I am joking of course. It’s not that shocking. But as an open fan of all things Apple, it was an interesting little factoid. And that got me thinking about how it all started. These are my personal reflections on how I experienced Powerpoint during the birth of the computer-based training and development industry.

HyperCard Starts the Race Towards Authoring

There is a little more to the story of Powerpoint and it’s connections with computer-based training authoring tools. In 1987 Apple launched a product called HyperCard. It was an amazing product for that time. People without any heavy programming skills could use HyperCard to produce interactive content. It was a huge success, and used in many different ways: Teachers built interactive educational applications, game designers built fantastic games like the legendary Myst, and it was used heavily as a presentation tool as well. But it was only available on the Macintosh. PCs were becoming deeply embedded into the enterprise and needed a similar tool. Microsoft acquired an application called Presenter that added the presentation element the corporate world needed.

Powerpoint and Toolbook Cut From the Same Cloth

Hypercard proved that authoring tools were useful and wanted. There was an undeniable need for interactive multimedia applications giving everyone the ability  to create programs. In 1990 Microsoft launched its first version of Presenter under the new brand Powerpoint. In the same year, former Microsoft founder Paul Allen founded a multimedia company called Asymetrix and launched their first product Toolbook. Toolbook used the book metaphor with pages, but there was no mistaking the similarities to Powerpoint: Pages, slides, same thing. Powerpoint and Toolbook may have shared a similar interface, but Toolbook was primarily built for authoring simple Windows based programs. This made it far more powerful than Powerpoint in so many ways. And made it more of a threat to Visual Basic than to Powerpoint. While HyperCard was launched the Mac authoring market, Toolbook gave PC users a chance to become program creators as well. And Powerpoint remained a humble presentation tool for delivering corporate presentations.

CBT Development Grows and Leaves Powerpoint Behind

The introduction of HyperCard stacks in schools led to its obvious use as a computer-based training development tool. And in my early days of graduate school Toolbook was often referred to as “the Windows version of HyperCard”. Not everyone had Macintosh computers at work. In fact, very few did. But everyone had a Windows PC on their desk giving Toolbook a huge advantage in the corporate training market. And in 1994 Asymetrix released Toolbook 3.0: The CBT Edition. This was also influenced by other authoring tools growing in the market. But my early experiences presented CBT developers with two choices: Hypercard or Toolbook. Powerpoint was not only NOT an option, it was seen as the anti-CBT tool. It’s uses were mostly limited to the board room, or the classroom based training room. It was the digital replacement for transparency projectors (Anyone remember printing “foils”?). If you were serious about creating self-paced computer-based training, Powerpoint was not even an option. It was the enemy: The epitome of old-school classroom training. And we were having none of that. Self-paced interactive multimedia computer-based training was the future. And we were all in.

New Authoring Tools Push Powerpoint Aside

And as I mentioned above, there were other authoring tools hitting the scene at about the same time. Authorware was founded in 1987 by Dr. Micheal Allen. Macromind Director 1.0 launched in 1988, but didn’t become Macromedia Director until ’93. And there were others. But my early career and experience with authoring was dominated by these major players. Authorware was an immediate hit quickly gaining 80% of the market in 3 years. However it suffered the Mac only syndrome, which obviously did not hinder it’s growth. But in my experience, as an internal CBT developer, Mac only products were difficult to justify since PCs dominated the enterprise. Toolbook was PC only and similar to Powerpoint which reduced the learning curve. And being created for the PC made it easy for us to justify the purchase. While Powerpoint was pushed aside as a potential authoring tool it remained deeply embedded in the corporate culture. It was marginalized, but not dead.

HyperCard, Toolbook, Authorware, Director, and a few others battled for the new and rapidly growing CBT development market. And Powerpoint was not in the mix. Powerpoint was pushed aside as an old product just for delivering presentations, and not useful in the coming eLearning revolution. But no matter how hard instructional designers and developers tried to ignore Powerpoint. It was hard to deny it’s usefulness and its reach across a large population of professionals. It lacked the sexiness of the authoring tools that pushed it aside, but it survived, and has become the workhorse of the corporate training industry.

In my next post I’ll look back on what happened to authoring tools, and consider how Powerpoint finally became one of the cool kids.

Don’t forget to register for the C3 event with special guest keynoter Peyton Manning!

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