Life Without A Spellchecker

It is almost a truism that we have become too reliant on technology. You only have to step into a place where the computer system has 'gone down' to see that. Like the restaurant I wandered into a few days ago in which there was, to quote one of the staff, 'anarchy' because the computerised booking set-up had, as it were, downed tools.

But in a funny kind of way that sort of situation is copable with if you're reasonably intelligent, have a contingency plan and possess a spark of creativity. The thing is, a system which is off is, by definition, not on. Like the binary system on which it's based, the computer system's state leaves no room for doubt, no room for ambiguity. at the risk of sounding a little Monty Pythonish, it's off, not working, finished, kaput – at least for the time being.

What is far worse, in my opinion, is when something goes wrong but in such a quiet sort of way that you don't even notice at first. Thus it was that when my spell-checker stopped checking my spelling, it did so without warning, without fanfare and, crucially, without any wavy red lines. Unfortunately, the first glimmer I had of something being amiss was when I read an article I'd just posted that mentioned my being resposible.

Now there are a couple of things that come to mind about this. Firstly, it's very apparent what a shoddy job of proofreading I did. That was partly because I had implicitly assumed that the spell checker would pick up any neologism I'd 'penned'. But it was also partly because, like most people, I subconsciously substituted the correct word for the incorrect one when I was reading through my article.

That is why anyone writing for an audience on a professional basis has their work proofread by someone else. Is that done as a matter of course in schools? We harp on about writing or presenting for different audiences (in England and Wales it is stipulated in the National Curriculum). But the logical corollary of that position is having students proofread each other's work and, in special projects, splitting the task between writers and editors and proofreaders.

The second thing that strikes me, somewhat more whimsically, is that not having a spell checker is a good way of coining new words. For example, as far as I am aware the word 'resposible' does not exist (I've even looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary), yet it sounds like it ought to. Could it be, perhaps, the property of being eligible to be taken back having been disposed of?

Inventing words accidentally, and then creating meanings for them, is quite entertaining. It goes to show that life without a spell checker, whilst not ideal, is not an entirely desperate state of affairs.

This is a slightly modified version of an article first published on 20th May 2009.

The Case For Bullet Points

So who says that bullet points are always bad? I'm referring, of course, to presentations. I think the humble bullet point has for too long been the scapegoat of dreadful presenters. Just because awful presenters use bullet points, it doesn't necessarily follow that all presentations containing bullet points will be terrible.

Perhaps this is just a bit of self-defence on my part, because I'm in the process of creating a couple of presentations which contain quite a few bullet points. Nevertheless, having sat in and also given numerous presentations, here is my take on the issue.

  • Used well, bullet points can enhance a presentation. If they summarise what the speaker is saying, that's a good thing is it not?
  • When I was training to be a teacher, we were told that the board at the front of the lesson should tell a story. If the writing was all over the place, climbing up and down the margins, and with no obvious logic, any pupil who went off in a daydream or came to the lesson late would be unable to pick up the thread of the lesson. Clearly, slides and boards are not the same, but I think the same sort of logic applies.
  • That brings me on to the next point. I have found that nine times out of ten when I download a presentation, it is almost completely meaningless -- even if I actually attended the session. At least some well-worded bullet points make the slides useful subsequently.
  • Although bullet points aren't the most visually compelling thing to show on a screen, they do have the advantage of being clear, assuming they are well-written of course. Contrast this with the situation in which every slide is a picture, and so as well as having to listen to the speaker you also have to try and figure out what the picture has to do with what he or she is saying. That isn't always the case, but in my experience the more intent a speaker is on demonstrating how far they have mastered the art of the 'killer presentation', the more apparently divorced from each other are the meanings of the graphics and the words. Having said that, I have been privileged to witness some brilliant graphic-intensive presentations, but I think it's difficult for a presenter to carry off.
  • As an audience member, I don't mind bullet points at all, especially if they enable me to relax and listen to what the speaker is saying instead of either trying to work out what the slide is showing or furiously scribble down notes. However…
  • I do get annoyed when the speaker proceeds to read the bullet points. Yes, by all means draw attention to the salient points, but a bit of paraphrasing doesn't come amiss.
  • I like the speaker to have more information or insights than are displayed on the screen. For me, the bullet points should act as both a launch pad and a summary. They should not merely be a substitute for thought.

When all is said and done, I think the most appropriate type of presentation is one which is suited to the audience and the topic. A presentation by an advertising agency to a potential client would probably not wear bullet points very well. In contrast, a presentation to an audience of school leaders on the issues facing them in a particular sphere could well benefit from a liberal sprinkling of bullet points. It seems to me that, like a lot of things in life in general, whether bullet points are good or bad depends on the context, the audience and how they are used.

A slightly different version of this article has been posted on the Technology and Learning website.