Chicago Hope

Michael McVey took shots at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business today with Scott McLeod laying down cover fire. I think I understand why. I also think they’re pointing their weapons in the wrong direction.

UC is doing right:

To enable prospective full-time MBA students to present a more complete picture of their candidacy, applicants to the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, one of the top business schools in the world, will now submit up to four slides about themselves with their application, the school announced. [emph. added]

McVey is bummed:

As a method of gauging [sic] the creative energy of an applicant to your program, making a four-slide presentation might be a good start. However, when you evaluate this creativity based upon two dimensional screen captures devoid of the very creative energy you sought to assess, you might as well have students submit their test scores and forego the technology charade.

The future-of-learning crowd trades stories of Luddite administrators and timid tech coordinators like baseball cards. This makes it easy to see UC as technologically and creatively primitive but by leaping (perhaps instinctively) to that conclusion, McLeod and McVey miss what UC grasps.

That is: constraints are not the enemy of creativity. More often than not, constraints breed creativity.

In his post, McVey puts a premium on videos and full-figured PowerPoint presentations where “images interact with music.” But handing a student iMovie, Audacity, and Keynote and saying, give me something that represents you, will only reveal what a student can do given (nearly) unlimited technology and (nearly) unlimited time. The result is rarely revealing or pretty.

You want to know how someone thinks, how someone solves problems, how someone reacts to challenge, you want to gauge someone’s creativity, you need to establish constraints.This is why, “It’s sucking the creativity out of teaching,” is one of the least convincing arguments for scrapping NCLB. My creativity as a teacher derives entirely from bringing the fun while meeting state standards.

You establish a deadline, a page maximum, you strike the personal pronoun “I” from your essays, you give a student five sounds she has to integrate into her podcast, you draw your cartoons exclusively in ballpoint pen on the backs of business cards. “I would’ve written a shorter post but I didn’t have the time.” Etc.

The movie The Five Obstructions has Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier tasking his friend Jørgen Leth with remaking a film under five separate constraints. At one point Leth fails to satisfy a constraint and in punishment, Von Trier has him remake the film however he wants.

Freedom from constraints doesn’t guarantee creativity, as McLeod and McVey suggest. Oftentimes, it’s hell.

Some constraints are irritating and arbitrary (illustrate your personal educational history in macramé) but UC’s are positively inspired.

PowerPoint was born and corrupted in the boardroom. These kids will be delivering presentations their entire career. A longer presentation with all the fixin’s seems more appropriate to McVey but business communication demands brevity and concision.

Four standalone slides? That’s ingenious.

Maybe McLeod and McVey think the connection was accidental but UC’s press release indicates a lot of foresight. Moreover, if UC gives this admission criterion sufficient weight and if other colleges follow UC’s lead, they’ll catch ’em young and the rest of us will see the death of Death by PowerPoint within our lifetimes.

Form meets content meets a social good. Credit where credit’s due, fellas.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Agreed. If you check back to the post you commented on recently on my blog re: my class slide presentations, I’ve uploaded a screen grab from one of my students that illustrates (even in the hands of a ten year old) that less is more. I told the class that five slides of content would be enough – it is interesting that the kids who stuck to the text light, image heavy format had the best presentations. The kids who went on and on and on without any restrictions on the scope of their content lost their audience easily. The audience found it much easier to recall important points from the shorter, succinct presentations rather than the “cover it all” presentations where the important stuff got lost in a sea of trivia.
    Once again, agreed. Probably should apply to some of my blog posts as well. Maybe that’s why memes are so popular!

  2. Hi Dan,

    I actually don’t have a problem with the 4-slide limitation at all. I think that, if done well, that can be a wonderful constraint that fosters creativity.

    It’s the intention to take a digital, multimedia medium and REDUCE IT TO PAPER that bothers me. It smacks of digital refugeeism:

    and echoes the themes and concerns embodied in this video:

    If UC is going to reduce student submissions to paper, why ask them for electronic presentation slides in the first place? UC could just print four boxes on a piece of paper for applicants and say “fill them” (through drawings, cut-out pieces of paper, paint, etc.). It’s the “Sure, use an electronic medium but only in a paper-focused way” mentality that seems sort of silly to me.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation!

  3. Scott, thanks for clarifying. That objection didn’t leap at me from Michael’s post and, for lack of elaboration, I didn’t get it from yours either.

    Even though you’ve clarified, I still find the guilty-until-proven-innocent vibe here a little troubling. It isn’t devil’s advocacy for me to suggest that UC simply doesn’t have the tech infrastracture to store supplementary materials like PowerPoint slides. It’s entirely likely.

    But more crucial to the point is that offering students the whole suite of PowerPoint multimedia bells-n-whistles would encourage lousy design. Of all the constraints UC could’ve handed down (no transitions, black & white color palette, six bullets per slide, etc.) the best of them (while remaining easily enforced across thousands of applications) is that the slides function perfectly as static images.

    They aren’t saying “design these for paper.” They’re saying, “you’re gonna lose all the fancy nonsense,” which is great design.

    If UC did what you and Michael propose (utilizing PP’s capability for video & sound & transitions) it would be an institutional endorsement of the same eye-blistering slides you and I have to sit through at conferences.

    UC has instead used an old-school medium to reform a new-school medium.

    This is groundbreaking. Not only does it go uncommended by the watering hole for school leaders and the guy who spawned it but they’ve sewn up into the stuffing of their usual punching bag. Just seems a shame to me is all.

  4. Dan, I think you and I are on the same page in that neither of us is encouraging stupid use of multimedia (and it’s arguable whether PowerPoint transitions and sound effects and other such nonsense are even ‘multimedia;’ I guess technically they are). I’m just having a hard time believing that a good short video or audio clip might not at least sometimes be more impactful than static images. Goodness knows that folks are finding a lot of power and meaning with the multimedia Web as opposed to just a print paradigm. UC is trying to take one paradigm and constrain it into another, and I don’t think it’s appropriate.

    I don’t know what the proper analogy is here. Is it like giving someone a Ferrari on the Autobahn and then saying you can drive no faster than an Amish buggy? Is it like giving a musician an electric synthesizer but only allowing him to sound exactly like a clavichord? It’s something like this, where UC is taking a tool that has the potential for much more and then constraining it to the point of (what I believe to be) ludicrousness.

    It would be one thing if UC said, “Look, we don’t want stupid stuff, and we don’t want your presentation to drag on. That said, we also recognize that we live in a multimedia age. So… no more than four slides and five minutes, that’s it.” That makes more sense to me than its current system, which will never encounter presentations like these in which sound, images, video, and other dynamic multimedia come together into something quite effective:

    I’m not advocating for multimedia just for multimedia’s sake; that would be stupid. But I am advocating for some recognition that there is worth in effective multimedia and that print alone is not the end-all-be-all. If UC just wants print and paper, it shouldn’t even pretend otherwise. Right now it seems to me like a poseur.

  5. Thanks for taking a crack at those analogies. They’re better than anything I came up with earlier (my personal educational history rendered in macramé) and they’d be apropos under most circumstances. Just not this one.

    Those restrictions (your Ferrari driving in first gear on the Autobahn) are arbitrary. In business, where communication must be quick, where the elevator pitch has its own competition, where brevity is the soul of wit and finance, it seems reasonable for a university to ask brevity of its applicants. Especially in the realm of PowerPoint which a) is the de facto boardroom tool and b) so often positions itself opposite the soul of wit or anything else.

    I mean, I’ve basically been quoting their PR release:

    Whether it be e-mail, PowerPoint or a two-minute elevator speech, successful businesspeople need to learn how to express their full ideas in very restrictive formats. We feel the new application requirement represents this very common challenge.

    Slight consolation: if UCGSB were a teaching college I’d stand alongside you and Michael.

    But it isn’t. And so I’m disturbed by the ad hoc judgment of UC’s motives here. Where in the press release do you get the sense that UC never considered iMovie or never thought to solicit a video presentation or a podcast? I realize nine out of ten universities would’ve imposed that constraint for primitive reasons. But this is the other one.

  6. Obviously UC is a phenomenal academic institution full of really smart people. But why, again, isn’t this ‘turning multimedia into paper’ restriction arbitrary? You trust that it’s not, primarily because it happens to be U. Chicago and not Southeast State University Teachers College, that is taking a potentially powerful multimedia medium and subjugating it to the limits of a diferent medium. Michael and I believe that it’s quite possible that the UC faculty don’t understand the power or potential of multimedia. For example, nearly all of my colleagues here at U. Minnesota (another very highly regarded research institution; half a billion in grants each year – yikes!) don’t get it. Why not the UC folks?

    I’m no business expert, but I’ll easily accept that it’s a ‘common challenge’ to have to be able to express oneself in the corporate world within a limited time frame (e.g., the elevator pitch). So brevity in terms of time, I have no problem with that. But is it really a ‘common challenge’ in today’s corporate environment to only be able to use paper, and not any other more modern multimedia communication tools, to deliver one’s message? That I’m a little more skeptical about…

    I don’t know if either side will know what UC’s reasoning is without more information. I’ll e-mail them and see if I can find out. That will be fun!

  7. Great discussion, and it sounds very much like the same ‘educational angst’ discussions I’ve had or read about.

    Most people can spot presentations that have tech for techs sake a mile away, but in education we’re always looking for a way to quantify, compare and assess it. It’s not that the two are mutually exclusive, it’s just difficult to manage a large number of projects that encourages the creativity while maintaining the objectivity of the teacher assessing the work.

  8. Okay, here’s the message I sent the Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions (I cc’ed Dan):

    Ms. Martinelli,

    There is a robust discussion occurring in the education blogosphere about GSB’s new admissions policy that allows students to submit 4 slides as part of their application. Essentially we’re all trying to figure out the reasoning behind your decision to reduce those slides to paper rather than take advantage of the affordances of a multimedia medium (audio, video, hyperlinks, whatever). There’s been lots of conjecture; I thought we should go to the source. Any additional detail you would be willing to provide beyond what’s offered here would be most welcome:

    We’d like to post your response on one of the blogs if that’s okay with you. Thanks!

  9. Nah, nah, I’m giving UC no credit for clout, no leeway for their status. I’m just saying that at a business school – any business school – this particular constraint is form nicely following function. At an ed school or a med school, where brief, powerful presentation isn’t such a gold coin, it would be that arbitrary.

    UC wants an naked presentation because the “affordances of a multimedia medium” so often produce the opposite of brevity and power.

    Whether or not we agree on that point is somewhat irrelevant. UC thinks it’s so and they’ve made it a condition of admission. We have no reason to believe they’re resistant or uninformed or scared but that’s the conclusion School 2.0 leaps to whenever an institution or educator has yet to succumb to (e.g.) the obvious virtue of a SecondLife classroom. None of that is fair. UC simply does not care about those affordances. Nor should they. Nor is more multimedia better than less per se. For a business school I find this totally reasonable.

    On the evidence, they care about applicants who can spin a compelling, visual narrative using minimal time and space within industry-standard software. Forcing the slides to work on paper just happens to be the most convenient way to enforce this. I reckon they could’ve demanded pdfs or jpegs or something and achieved the same effect (only digitally) but that doesn’t seem to be our sticking point.

    The point is this: they don’t want any of the multimedia. Credit where credit’s due for e-mailing the source, but you’re still extrapolating wildly on their motives for that decision.

    So here’s mine, my totally unsubstantiated theory: not only has UC deemed a multimedia presentation irrelevant to their admission process and unwieldy to assess, they don’t want to inflict an open-ended multimedia presentation on their applicants, either.

    Which is nice of them.

    Imagine: these kids are applying to dozens of MBA programs and this one college asks them to submit a 5-minute video or a 5-slide PPT presentation or 5-minute introductory podcast. Not only are these skills mostly irrelevant to the career they’ve chosen but, for all their effort to create them and UC’s to assess them, it’s very questionable how much value they add to either end of the application process.

    UC is ingenious and compassionate. Yet somehow, in spite of its well-measured efforts at enhancing the admissions process, UC is catching hell from School 2.0. I find it sadly smug. You’ve made the rationale behind your disagreement clear but several commenters along the way have seemed overly eager to ensure their superiority.

    The Consumerist takes nine out of every ten posts to trash corporations for their lousy customer service but doesn’t hesitate to dole out credit when its due.

    School 2.0, unfortunately, isn’t edited by an individual and has no such mechanism for checking-and-balancing. However, when a decision like UC’s (that’s at the very least a well-meant step forward) finds only unmitigated scorn from School 2.0 bloggers, how long do we have until the movement collapses under its own self-regard?

  10. Here is Ms. Martinelli’s kind and thoughtful reply to my e-mail:

    Dear Scott,

    Thanks for your note. Our reasoning was twofold. First, we wanted to focus on the content rather than on the various media that could be used (while expertise is valued, not everyone has the same comfort level with technology options). Second, our evaluation process is iterative, so files are passed through a variety of channels before the final decision is reached. And for Chicago GSB, we still use paper in the evaluation process. We plan to move to online evaluation in the near future, which will allow us to incorporate a broader range of media options next year. I’m happy to answer any other questions you may have as well.

    Warm regards, Rose

  11. He he! I was hoping you’d chime in first! =)

    I guess I have a few thoughts…

    1. I was delighted that she gave such a kind and thoughtful response.

    2. I’m not sure I agree with her that reducing PowerPoint slides to paper completely fulfills the goal of ‘leveling the playing field.’ There still, of course, will be a continuum of skill within the applicant pool. UC seems to feel that taking out the multimedia piece reduces the disadvantage for those not comfortable with technology. But… as you yourself, Dan, have so aptly showed us time and time again, folks with a handle on good graphic design, with good computer-oriente presentation skills, with good graphing / flowcharting / mindmapping / visual portrayal skills, etc., still will have an advantage under this paradigm. That said, perhaps the range of skill disparity is less than if UC also included multimedia options. And… it is still important to be able to present oneself well on paper.

    3. I read her response as essentially saying that UC recognizes that electronic presentation skills are important but that they can’t handle that yet in their admissions process. This seems to be a transition step for them (and, admittedly, one that other business school admissions offices may not be taking yet). I liked her response that they will consider opening up to full multimedia slides down the road as their online evaluation capacity increases.

    4. I’m still left with the feeling that it’s sort of silly to take a multimedia medium and reduce it to paper. Sorry. I just can’t help it. It feels like shoehorning a robust paradigm into a less robust paradigm (‘you can create a sculpture to express your talents, but it can it only be made out of Play-Do because that’s the one material we know you all have used comfortably at some point in your life!’). But… change is slow. Maybe this transition step is better than no step (if the goal is to allow students to express their talents in ways other than admissions essays). But they’re missing out on some interesting possibilities until they make the wholesale changeover. As you can see, I’m ready for them to make the change now. The world is moving toward multimedia; I like the idea that students can someday choose to use modern communication tools to show their knowledge and skills.

    5. I’m not picking up a vibe of smug superiority like you do, Dan. I instead sense frustration by people who are knowledgeable about new communication paradigms about what are perceived to be artificial, and possibly unnecessary, restraints on those paradigms by people who are less knowledgeable. Perhaps similar to the frustration you sometimes feel with other math teachers who you feel ‘don’t get it?’

    It will be very interesting to see what UC gets in the four boxes from each student and to hear its reactions after the first wave of applications. Maybe we can see some examples afterward!

    Thanks, Dan, for extending this conversation. It’s been interesting and fun.

  12. Heh, well naturally I found her e-mail completely validating.

    Taking her e-mail at face value, they’d like to use multimedia in their admissions process but lack the infrastructure. This alone makes the original LeaderTalk post seem hasty and misguided. Any remorse for picking on the poor ol’ monolithic institution? Anyone?

    A question to satisfy my curiosity: if instead of “print to paper” Chicago GSB demanded its applicants “output to pdf,” is your reaction any different? Because, School 2.0’s allergic reaction to paper notwithstanding, those solutions are exactly the same in their effect.

    And, for whatever it’s worth, with some room in my archives for debate, my default reaction when someone “doesn’t get it” skews away from abject frustration and tends towards commiserative pity. I remain too closely connected to my failures to get irritated by anyone making the same mistakes I did. I rarely sense the same largesse from School 2.0 bloggers (in the original post, for example) but maybe I need to broaden my RSS pool.

  13. After several hours of mulling this over, the following comes to mind:

    1. Bravo for Mike M. pushing on the question by posting the original blog post in the first place.
    2. Bravo for Scott M. for contacting the university to find out what lay behind the application element.
    3. Bravo to Dan M. for reminding me (and all of us) that the university is being innovative and that ‘constraint’s allow for creativity at the end of the day.

    Added my own 2centsworth blog-style here

    Thanks to all of you; been a great conversation to enter today.

  14. I work in the K-12 arena and my first impression upon reading the article was the same as Scott. We are working to include all forms of technology into our instruction and assignments in order to bring our students into the present century. Fluff is not creativity – but using technology to do the “same old” is also not productive. I remain with Scott on this one.

    “asks them to submit a 5-minute video or a 5-slide PPT presentation or 5-minute introductory podcast. Not only are these skills mostly irrelevant to the career they’ve chosen but, for all their effort to create them and UC’s to assess them, it’s very questionable how much value they add to either end of the application process.”
    I do not believe that creativity and good use of multi-media is irrelevant to a Business Career! This is another thread however.

  15. Wrote the following in my post responding to Dan’s post (and that of Mike, and Scott’s comments). Seems fitting given Sharon’s comment above (and since I’m also a K-12 educator who cares deeply about kids having access to a wide range of tools in the spirit of developing their “global learning brand”, I feel comfortable adding the following):


    Rant coming up. Maybe a thesis. A fine line in this day and age of rapid-fire publishing without editors standing over the top of your shoulder.

    In a Death-by-Powerpoint world, there’s a lot of reasons to cave into bullet-point despair and call it a day. Even worse if you’re a teacher assigning projects with a PPt flair…and have to suffer the visual/mental arrows of your best intentions once the little buggers submit their work.

    There is ONLY one thing worse than being a corporate denizen being lulled to sleep in a conference room as a a colleague is slow-lane lumbering through PPt slide 15 (of 35 more to come), proving just how many complete and otherwise lucid/relevant thoughts chopped down to broken-mind bullet points can be crammed onto a single slide all while reading it word for word aloud rather than even hinting at a presentation style and an ability to connect to audience in a slightly meaningful manner.

    Agreed. Okay. But what is that “ONLY one thing worse…” business?

    The ONLY thing worse than this ubiquitous business scene is being a teacher who has assigned (possibly poorly, let’s be honest) an assignment inviting a bunch of young kids to use PowerPoint as a “multi-media” tool void of any “design” instruction or “constraints” placed on the actual gimmick-vs-substance meter ahead of time.

    The ONLY thing worse than that is the same teacher watching her/his beloved kiddos demonstrate a week later what 8 hours of badly conceived design gimmicks (add flying words and oddly sized photos here) and superficial creativity can do to thoroughly dismember and render obsolete/worthless 30 seconds worth of actual research they snuck in via Wikipedia on the final night.

    The ONLY thing worse than that is the same teacher who must now sit through an entire class set of kiddos standing in front of the screen without the slightest sense of eye contact’s value, the golden mean of visual balance, or the visual ‘less is more’ and research ‘more is more’ theories.

    The ONLY thing worse than that is this same teacher then having to grade them without pandering to the “Well, they did use PPt slides to show off at least one multiple intelligence or another, I think…” rubrics.

    [Do you find yourself feeling either guilty or nodding knowingly here?]

    Sure, our kids are jivin’ and shakin’ in front of cut-n-paste pictures shown in technicolor on newly installed Smartboards, but are they really demonstrating anything that resembles learning? And maybe as importantly, are they saying anything about themselves as learners and showcasing their “global learning brand” of creative processes?

    Why does this matter?


    So, I’m curious, how do we make this less an argument about the specific tools (PPt, for instance) and the School2.0goodorbad argument (blah, blah, blah scarecrow either way you face it), and focus more and more on helping our K-12 kiddos/students/charges begin to grasp the ‘power of presentation’ in front of all ‘audiences’ they will face and engage?

    Dan is spot-on with regards to elevating ‘design’ and ‘presentation’ (although I think it’s fair to say that the whip-the-school2.0-boy posture can be retired so he can dazzle with all the rest that he brings hard/fast to the conversation). To be fair, Sharon, Dan never has advocated that”creativity and good use of multi-media is irrelevant” in any situation — classroom or business or real life.

    But back to the point of it all: simply arguing over ‘fluff’ vs. ‘ multi-media as digital god’ seems to ignore the issue.

    How do we help our kids grasp the power of presentation?
    Esp. when most teachers or business professional themselves have NO idea how to effectively use ‘tech’ to present, or to simply engage an audience F2F with nothing but a legal pad and a decent story.

    Curious —
    Cheers, Christian

  16. Hey, back to the medium (paper) affecting the message point that Scott made, can I point folks to Dave Cormier’s post on how a paper paradigm really effects how writing is structured, and that a lot of those “rules” are still be used in academia in the formats for research papers, even electronic papers. It got me thinking.

  17. From the looks of my blog’s front page, I couldn’t leave this one alone. Too damn fascinating, CGSB’s accidental genius and the misunderstanding I’ve encountered here.

    One note that didn’t find its way into what has to be my longest post ever, Sharon thinks I’ve underestimated the relevance of multimedia skills to business.

    I just want to say, yeah, I agree. I did say “largely irrelevant” but that was me trying to hop off this hook. In the past I’ve claimed that everything is relevant to everything. At one time or another, I’ve worked every skill I have into teaching.

    But the point is: which of those skills should be a barrier to entry to a teaching college? Or here, to a business college?

    While a business grad’s ability to film a brief product sketch and edit it well is doubtlessly relevant to his career, neither I nor Chicago GSB think it’s relevant enough to become a part of the admissions process.

    They think (and I totally agree) one’s ability to communicate briefly and powerfully is paramount while multimedia skills, though certainly useful, shouldn’t bar the door.

  18. Great conversation! 2 things. For those of us in K-12 education, we need to have good instruction on how to make those powerful messages in print, media, numeracy and graphic design. The other point, good for Chicago GSB, opening up the process to be more inclusive to any media. I think someone added this ppt option to open the door and get it started and now realizes how important this is to NOT be reduced to paper. That is a huge step. If colleges are reading the Horizon Project Report 2007, they and all of us will see why.

  19. Cheryl, I agree that design instruction is lacking to nonexistent. Any suggestions on that end?

    I also agree that, as an educational culture, we need to media beyond paper. There’s a proper place and context for everything, though, and I don’t think that the application for a business school is the appropriate context to introduce multimedia, for reasons which I’ve explained here and there.