Friday, November 03, 2006

Selecting Generic Concept Mapping Software……

Choosing software in the concept mapping category was relatively easy, despite the variety of available software in terms of structure, format, and developers’ ideas of what concept-mapping software should deliver. But most software in this category appear to do one, or perhaps a few, functions really well, but not necessarily all the functions that I was looking for.

Prices ranged from zero to more than $800.

I expected to find software that was very flexible, almost free form but in this respect, my selection options were extremely limited.

When I looked at what was being offered at the time, in comparison to what I wanted, there just wasn’t much to get excited about. Cost was not a factor in my decision because I had already resigned myself to paying up to $200. Although there was plenty of software costing more than this amount, it was functionality for my personal use that I concentrated on.

In the end, I narrowed my selection for further evaluation down to CMap Tools, Inspiration, and SmartDraw.

CMap Tools
Cmap Tools is free, as it should be; it has to be the most bare-boned piece of software in this category. But it does what it is supposed to do, I think. The design of this software is based on the Novakian concept map model of concept-label-concept triads.

To those in educational environments who spend their time trying to figure out what makes people tick (i.e., how they learn) and for educators attempting to instruct grade schoolers, this package might be their panacea. But most of the maps produced by this software remind me of my Dick and Jane school days, even the NASA and Mars maps on the home website.

Whenever I tried to create a map with this software, using Joseph Novak's rules, I felt that I was simply parsing sentences and taking up an awful lot of space to do it, regardless of the level of concept degradation I chose to use. And the maps all look the same. The structure did not elicit better memorization or recall, and it was of little value in presenting material to others (in my case, engineers and scientists).

Constructing triads for each incremental detail of a concept map quickly led to an un-manageable maze of connectors. Even for simple diagrams, the complexity of triads seemed excessive. Of course, this complexity can be reduced by consolidating or grouping propositions into more general functions. Continuing in this manner would lead to a black box, compartmental, concept map --- not much detail, except for the basics.

At this point, I had to take a step back and re-assess what I really wanted concept mapping software to do. And the answer was to be able to design concept maps, not just those based on any one specific model, but on any model.

I decided to try creating a concept map without strict adherence to Novak's rules. Using a hand-drawn concept map as a template, I tried to duplicate the map using CMap Tools. The Nitrogen Cycle concept map was the result. Apart from a couple of logic/technical errors in the template itself, the CMap Tools map it's not an exact match to the template, but it is close.

Inspiration is obviously designed for the educational market as its intended client. But the software offered more flexibility than any other software I had reviewed at the time. It may not have some of the sophistication of a package like SmartDraw (below), but it is definitely free form and can get the job done.

For those who “just want to get on with it” or are seeking the “quick fix”, this software might at first try one’s patience, as you are expected to do some independent thinking in putting your map together (not such a bad idea for someone who is supposed to be conceptualizing). On the other hand, as with CMap Tools, this is one of its strongest features; you can do virtually anything you want with this software.

It will produce Novakian concept map models, if that’s what is needed. But it will also produce just about any type of generic concept map, with as much detail, color, images, notes, etc. as one is interested in creating. The same Nitrogen Cycle created with this software produced a map with a little more diversity than the CMap Tools map.

At the time of this evaluation, I used version 7. Version 8, which I do not have yet, also offers a mind mapping option (see below).

The two maps above are close in accurately portraying the template and have a fairly close resemblance to each other. Some of the differences lie in the availability of options in the software (e.g., objects design, text formatting), which are weak in CMap Tools. Inspiration also offers a drawing capability and the option to create and add user-based object module libraries. Although CMap Tools does have a much cleaner and responsive screen display than Inspiration, hard copy printout quality was almost identical.

If it’s more sophistication and options that one wants, then SmartDraw is available at double the price.

This is a very impressive program. It has lots of concept map templates of just about every variety. And if it doesn’t have what you want, you can create your own, either based on an existing template or from scratch.

One of its strength is that it has a very robust drawing component built into the software. It has plenty of options to make a map as staid, dynamic, colourful, even gaudy, as one prefers. In a business setting, this package can probably provide all the chart and diagram templates and flexibility one could want (I considered buying this software for my firm for this reason alone).

I had not created the Nitrogen Cycle concept map with this software before my trial period ran out. However, the quality of maps that I did produce was excellent.

For my own personal use I found the price of US$300 a bit steep; and I really felt that I would likely use only about 50% of the package. But that said, I really liked this program and I keep tabs on the developer to see what might come in the next version.

Since my wife already owns Inspiration, there is little incentive to change. And it does offer a few more options than CMap Tools. But the cost of CMap Tools (free), its quality and ability would be impossible to ignore, if I were just starting out to find concept mapping software.

When I began this exercise, I was not aware of Compendium. This is collaborative freeware and has a rather unusual, but very interesting showcase of example uses. The software looks very promising; I’ll have to download a copy and play with it.

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Blogger Andre said...

I notice that the Nitrogen Cycle concept map you constructed in Cmap Tools has a couple of unlabelled links. How were you able to do this? The fact that Cmap Tools seems to force users to create a label for each link makes it virtually useless for me, but if there's a way to create links without labels, or at least to remove the labels, I could work with it.

March 16, 2008 1:23 PM  

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