A surprising number responded with variations of "Don't use it." But Inspiration (along with its junior version, Kidspiration), designed specifically for students to organize and research projects, was the clear winner. The second- and third-place finishers were PowerPoint and Microsoft Office, software packages essentially for business applications. Many other readers mentioned Internet browsers, word processing programs, Photoshop, even classic books available for MP3 players. One reader responded simply, "Can't afford any."
"PowerPoint?" we asked, slightly stunned at its runner-up ranking. "Isn't PowerPoint fairly high on the list of quintessentially ineffectual modes of instruction?" Well, yes, in some ways, answers Peter Norvig, director of research at Google and author of the famed mockery "The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation" (available online at www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/index.htm). Norvig's joke presentation was inspired, he says, by attending one too many PowerPoint presentations that just weren't, well, getting to the point. Presenters too frequently use the slides to display lists of text-based bullet points that perfunctorily summarize their speeches rather than offer additional, meaningful visual information, he adds. To make matters worse, many end up sticking so diligently to the lists they've created.
"One of the advantages of being in the same room with a group of people is conversation," says Norvig. "Too often, people use PowerPoint the wrong way." If it is used as a compelling visual aid rather than an unnecessary adjunct to a monologue, he says, PowerPoint can be -- as many of you insist -- an effective teaching tool. No wonder, then, that Inspiration's concept-diagramming software topped your charts: For teachers and learners, it seems a picture, rather than a list of bullets, speaks a thousand words.