Help Your Students Make Better Virtual Presentations

by Aaron Bannasch

Common activities that occur in many professional and classroom settings, like giving a presentation, don’t always work in a distance learning environment in the ways we would expect. Differences in technology platforms can make the fairly simple process of talking and showing something to a group a difficult task. Fortunately, many students today frequently communicate through digital media and the amount of available options continues to grow. Humans are a species that uniquely use language to imagine and create narratives. Throughout our evolution we have developed ways to share these with each other that traverse time and place. This blog post will cover a few of the common options available to Northwestern students and include examples of each.

Thinking about your goals

Before you launch ahead to read how students can use technology to enhance your presentation, first think about why you are asking this of your students in the first place. There are many ways to express ideas, and while a conventional concept like presenting to an audience may feel natural and align with common experiences of professionals and higher education students alike, it doesn’t have to be the only mode of communication. Distance learning student populations can and often do have widely varying life experiences, and a typical business presentation may be a very unfamiliar process for someone coming from different cultural, social, personal, professional, or physical ability backgrounds. You may still choose to assign a presentation to your students and whether it’s something they find familiar or challenging you can equip them with some tools to help it happen in a virtual, distance learning environment.

The Tools

If possible, you should encourage your students to achieve a high level of literacy with digital communication tools. This post is only a limited survey of a few available tools and it barely even begins to describe how to use these tools. Learning the technical functions of the tools is only the first step in achieving literacy; reaching that level goes beyond the instructional capabilities of a blog post. At this time and through this medium I can only suggest that knowing why and when to use a technique or tool extend one’s abilities is as important as knowing which hardware buttons to push or which software menus to select. Approach the following descriptions with that in mind, and if after reading them you find yourself asking more questions, contact me.


It’s been around since the late 1980s and used inappropriately since about the same time. While it may seem like a convenient (lazy) way to put an otherwise boring white-paper into an endless stream of presentation slides and read it verbatim to a captive audience, that convenience comes with a cost. Death by PowerPoint is real. That said, if your students want to risk the lives of their classmates they can download Microsoft Office for free. Now that I’ve been unfairly critical of PowerPoint, I should mention that PowerPoint does include some accessibility features that might not make a difference in a traditional presentation format but can be useful to blind or low-vision students when navigating a PowerPoint presentation file independent of a live presenter. Also, ironically, a former talking head (a term that I consider to be the video synonym of bad presentations) has turned PowerPoint into this.


A new web conference platform that replaces Adobe Connect, BlueJeans does the basics very well. The core elements of a presentation are all supported: a presenter on camera and a presentation in the form of anything you want to show on your computer screen. You can run a presentation in front of a live audience, or record it on your own for others to view later. A rough example that I produced is included in the instructions in this guide, and an additional guide produced by Instructional Technologist William Guth is also available.

A near infinite amount of recording tools

That phone in your pocket, it records stuff. That camera you bought for vacation but never use because you have phone, it records stuff. Your laptop, your kid’s iPad from school, your grandma’s Nook, your neighbor’s XBOX, your refrigerator. There’s no shortage of ways to communicate digitally these days, but there seems to be shortage of creative reasons for doing so. All of these tools are a great way to record a new idea, and grabbing the most readily available option, whether that’s a clay tablet or a digital one, is what I tend to do. But when we’re communicating professionally we often have to iterate our ideas, transitioning them from that early rough sketch to something more sophisticated and building upon our original idea creatively along the way.

How do I get more creative?

Creativity may not be something to obtain, some argue that the concept itself is exaggerated. I usually avoid thinking about “being creative” and instead begin by asking simple questions about what I want to achieve. You likely do this to when you think about designing learning activities for your students, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it. Go even further and directly ask your students what kinds of activities resonate with them, give them an opportunity to participate in the development of the criteria of their own learning assessments. And instead of thinking about a specific tool or platform, think about how you can assess a variety of artifacts that your students create, focusing on student’s ability to convey their competency effectively regardless of the way they choose to do it.

If you or your students simply can’t come up with a method that explores different ways of presenting ideas, make use of the guides on how to quickly use BlueJeans to record a basic PowerPoint based presentation. But as you watch those recorded presentations please ask yourself: was a presentation–virtual or otherwise–really the best method for demonstrating or sharing knowledge? We’re equipped with a wonderful set of senses that go far beyond the confines of an electric rectangle. How are you taking your students there? Head over to the Contact page and tell us.