Ever since Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press nearly six centuries ago, people have been organizing information page by page. Even in the computer age, they still are doing it on web pages.

That perplexed researchers at the University of West Florida’s Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, which works to make computers more useful and user-friendly.

“Why should we organize [information] as pages? There’s no reason,” said Associate Director Alberto Canas. “It’s just that we’re used to it.”

Canas heads a team that took a learning tool called concept mapping, developed with paper and pencil in the 1970s, and turned it into a pageless method of browsing web sites. It will not replace web browsers, but any existing browser can be used to view concept map, or C-map, sites, Canas said.

“If you can do something about helping humans better exploit the sort of information ghetto on the web, you’ve got lots of customers,” said institute director Ken Ford. “They all know that their browser’s no good, because when you ask them which button they click most, they all say the back arrow.”

The patented software is written in the Java computer language and runs on a variety of operating systems, including Windows, Macintosh, and variations of Unix.

Government agencies, schools, students, and others using the software for nonprofit purposes can download it free from the institute’s web site.

The software is not yet available for commercial use, though the institute is considering licensing it and has been approached by private companies.

One of them is Cincinatti-based Cincom Inc., which is seeking licensing rights for software it designs for manufacturers.

“We have looked at everything we can find that is similar, or designed for the purpose of knowledge management, and we find concept mapping to be light-years ahead,” said Barry Brosch, a senior consultant with Cincom.

A C-map is just what its name implies—a graphic representation of a subject that shows how it is linked to related topics and subtopics.

Geoffrey Briggs, director of the Center for Mars Exploration at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, is among the first users. He created a Mars concept map on the ‘net.

“Mars” appears in a red box at the top with lines connecting it to related concepts, including “Search for Evidence of Life,” “Exploration Strategy,” and even “Science Fiction.” Clicking on concept-box icons can open additional maps or provide links to appropriate web sites.

“That’s a powerful means, from my perspective, of communicating information and giving people an immediate grasp of the subject,” Briggs said.

He also wants to use C-maps to brainstorm the selection of Mars landing sites. Scientists each could do a concept map on a preferred site and then discuss, compare, and criticize each other’s ideas by computer.

The software was developed as part of a broader $6 million federally funded project that includes the creation of related tools for NASA and the Navy, which plans to use concept maps for on-the-job training aboard ships.

The software also has advanced the original purpose of C-maps, said Joseph Novak, who developed the idea about 25 years ago while at Cornell University, where he is a professor emeritus of education and biology.

It has been used to help education researchers present large amounts of data in a concise and cogent way, and for course planning and knowledge-sharing. Students are also assessed by having them build C-maps.

Other concept-mapping software is available commercially, including Inspiration by Inspiration Software Inc., Decision Explorer by Banaxia Software Ltd., MindManager by Mindjet, and VisiMap by CoCo Systems Ltd.

The institute’s version has the advantage of being free for nonprofit uses—schools all over the globe have used it—and its features include a method for easy access to other web sources, said Novak, a senior research scientist at the University of West Florida.

“All the fundamental assumptions that underlie concept-mapping have been embedded in the ways in which the software works,” Novak said. “It facilitates building [web sites] the way they ought to be built.”

Links:

Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
http://www.coginst.uwf.edu

Mars concept map
http://cmex.arc.nasa.gov/cmaps/Mars2001/Mars%20Prime.html