Don’t use powerpoint (or keynote) in the classroom. Try this instead!

Don’t use powerpoint (or keynote) in the classroom. Try this instead!

Want to engage your art history class? Don’t use Powerpoint.
Cards on the table, we hate teaching with powerpoint, keynote, or any other presentation software. No matter how much energy you bring to your class, no matter how beautiful the images they hold, these programs work against you, causing atrophy and boredom for you and your students.

What’s so bad about .ppt or .key?
Powerpoint (and its cousins) do not easily allow for deviation from a set order — especially with comparisons, which are often at the center of art historical pedagogy. This means that teachers can not easily respond to unanticipated student questions or class discussion — .ppt and .key lock you in and kill classroom spontaneity.

Presentation software like .ppt require a great deal of time to prepare in advance. This means that teachers are more reluctant to change their presentations as better images become available or scholarship changes — .ppt and .key lock you in and can slowly bore you to death.

And it gets worse…
Today, nearly every art history classroom has one digital projector, when we started teaching we had two side-by-side projectors allowing for Wolfflinian comparisions, or commonly, the display of an overall view of a work of art on the left and a series of details on the right. This means that even comparisons shown in .ppt or .key must be preconstructed. Do we really want to have to skip ahead or backwards, sometimes over many slides to make a point we hadn’t anticipated? Do we really want to teach like this?

With the old two-projector system, we could spontaneously zoom in on the details of just one of the images in a comparison, responding to student questions or the unanticipated direction of a class discussion. We could turn one projector off to focus on the other. The presentation of the images were flexible, and were made to serve the needs of the classroom.

This solution is free, very easy, and returns flexibility to your classroom
The solution offered below gives you back this flexibility and requires much less preparation. This means you can jump to the slides you want, you can zoom on one image, you can enlarge one and shrink the other, and you can easily replace your images.

Best of all, you don’t need any new software. All you need are your images and your computer. Here are step-by-step instructions (for Macs).

Step-by-step instructions

Note: I have my Mac set to “dark mode” so my background is black, yours might be white.

1. Create a course folder on your desktop (ex. Italian Renaissance). Next create a lecture folder (ex. 14th century Italy) with all the images you want for a given lecture and place it with the course folder.

2. Next, you need to open this lecture folder twice — so you can do side-by-side comparisons. Open your finder, navigate to your desktop, and double click the course folder to open it, and then double click the lecture folder to open that.

finder icon

3. Open a new finder window, and do that a second time, so you have two lecture folders open.

Note: In your “view” menu, make sure that you see “show sidebar” and “show preview” (not “hide sidebar” and “hide preview”).

4. At the top left of the two lecture folder windows are three circles, when a finder window is selected and you hover over them, the rightmost will turn green and will have two outward-facing triangles. Click and hold the green button, placing the window on the left half of your screen. Now click and hold the same green button in other lecture folder window so it fills the right half of your screen. If there are extraneous margins, you can drag them off the screen.

5. You should now have two side-by-side lecture file windows open. Along the top, there are four options to display the folder’s content. Choose the one at the right for each window (these options allow you to show items as icons, in a list, in columns or in a gallery). You want the gallery (see below).

Or you can use the pulldown menu.

6. Your presentation set up should now look like this:

That’s all there is to it!
Now you can use the thumbnails at the bottom to independently move between images. You can zoom a selected image by pinching/spreading your fingers on the trackpad. You can use the slider in the middle to change the relative size of each image. And, you can add new images by simply adding them to your folder. Your classroom is now freed from the tyranny of .ppt and .key!

Use the middle slider to change the relative size of each image

There have been various efforts to offer the flexibility art historians need in their classroom presentations, notably Wolff and the Artstor Offline Viewer (OIV) but they have both been abandoned. Let’s not needlessly hinder our teaching with software designed for sales presentations. We have a world of art to explore!

Here are alternate instructions from Apple.

Helpful hints
You can control the order your images appear in by adding 01, 02, 03, etc. to the beginning of each image name. So for example, “01 Duccio Rucelli Madonna” “02 Duccio Rucelli Madonna Angel)” etc. The next painting might skip to the next ten, “10 Cimabue Trinita” “11 Cimabue Trinita Detail with Child” etc.

Finally, you may find it useful to set up a three or four finger trackpad swipe so you can move easily between your desktop and and your presentation.

Looking for free high-resolution photographs of commonly taught works of art? Smarthistory offers more than 8,000 images all with accurate metadata:

This solution came from Noah Zucker, a Ph.D. student in International Relations at Columbia.


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  1. […] dyslexia to process, and use larger font sizes for greater accessibility.  There was also this Smarthistory blog post, recommending an alternative to standard presentation software for images used in […]


  2. Hmmm. Two Keynote presentations can be used the same way using the full screen split view, but offers more tools than the finder. FYI, PowerPoint and Keynote presentations do not take a lot of time if you know what you’re doing. It is nice to have other options.


  3. Krystal Lynn Mills January 30, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you! Really never thought of doing this. It’s perfect for what I need. Thanks for sharing – love the flexibility!


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