A research institute in Pensacola, Fla., is taking concept-mapping software designed in part to preserve scientists’ knowledge and is giving it to schools worldwide at no cost, as a tool to help children learn. The move could threaten some vendors that offer similar concept-mapping software for a fee–most notably Inspiration Software Inc., which has based its entire business model on selling a similar type of product.

The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) designed its concept-mapping software, called Cmap Tools, to map out scientists’ knowledge in diagram form. IMCH is providing the software at no cost to schools and is training teachers in Panama, the first country to adopt Cmap Tools nationwide, in how to use the software with their students.

NASA and the U.S. Defense Department paid for most of the research. The military uses concept mapping both as a learning tool and to help unlock information from the minds of scientists for use by future generations, said Alberto Canas, the institute’s associate director and leading Cmap researcher.

“Having a tool that allows the scientist to express that [knowledge] is no different than trying to figure out what little Johnny knows about volcanoes in the fifth grade,” Canas said.

Cmap Tools can be used to assess student knowledge, encourage thinking and problem solving instead of rote learning, organize information for writing projects, and help teachers write new curricula, IHMC officials say.

“We need to move education from a memorizing system and repetitive system to a dynamic system,” said Gaspar Tarte, who is spearheading education reform in Panama as the country’s secretary of governmental innovation.

“We would like to use tools and a methodology that help children construct knowledge,” Tarte said. “Concept maps were the best tool that we found.”

A concept map is a series of concepts, usually nouns, linked by phrases or verbs. Canas cites a simple map on birds as an example.

One of several lines radiating from the main concept–“birds”–is labeled “have” and links it to such attributes as “beaks,” “hollow bones,” and “feathers.” Another line is labeled “lays” and connects “birds” with “eggs.”

“It’s really saying ‘birds lay eggs’–that’s a proposition–‘birds have beaks,’ ‘birds have hollow bones,'” Canas said. “So it’s knowledge expressed as propositions.”

The institute’s software can be downloaded free of charge for noncommercial use. The site gets 300 downloads a day, Canas said.

Commercial software also is available from private companies. Inspiration Software’s concept-mapping software, including Inspiration and Kidspiration visual learning tools, similarly uses graphic organizers to represent concepts and relationships and uses what the company calls “integrated outlining capability” to further organize ideas for reports.

The president and co-founder of Inspiration Software, Mona Westhaver, told eSchool News in an eMail message that her company has known about IHMC’s Cmap Tools program for some time.

Inspiration Software is arguably the industry leader when it comes to concept-mapping software in education. Westhaver said about 15 million students worldwide use some kind of Inspiration product. According to market research firm Quality Education Data, more than 60 percent of U.S. school districts use Inspiration products–and more than 40 large districts have licensed Kidspiration and Inspiration for every instructional computer.

Westhaver said her company does not see the free Cmap program as a threat.

“We are strong supporters of visual learning to improve student achievement,” she said. “We see Cmap as positive support of this belief.”

She added: “Inspiration and Kidspiration fully support concept mapping as well as other visual learning formats. The Cmap product was developed for the military and NASA. Our products are tailored to the needs of K-12 students and include capabilities that directly support their learning goals and different learning styles.”

Still, Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Shillington, Pa., and a daily user of Inspiration products, called the Cmap software “powerful and robust.”

“I found the format of Cmap Tools to be easy to use and intuitive,” Becker said. “Within 15 minutes, I was creating complex diagrams as quickly as I normally do with Inspiration.”

Becker did acknowledge using a completed concept map from another web site for guidance. She also said she found the pictorial concepts featured in Inspiration were not as easily located in Cmap Tools. But Becker said those were the only items she could not find on her first use of the free software.

“The software developers [at Inspiration] may have some concerns,” she said, adding, “as my budget grows tighter, I may need to switch to Cmap.” But Becker also said she was “not about to drop” Kidspiration for use in her district’s elementary schools.

IHMC’s Canas, a native of Costa Rica, was a consultant to Panama’s government in the 1990s, but it did not embrace Cmap Tools until President Martin Torrijos, a Texas A&M University economics graduate, took office last year. Concept mapping now is part of a wider initiative to bring schools there into the information age.

The institute began training Panama’s teachers in February, although many will do their concept mapping on paper until all schools get computers.

Donna Imatt, a teacher at Pensacola’s Brown-Barge Middle School, is the institute’s integrated curriculum consultant. Although long familiar with concept mapping after teaching one of Canas’ sons, she had never used Cmap with her students until returning from Panama.

Students in Imatt’s integrated curriculum course, which uses community service as a springboard to academic subjects, learned concept mapping from the institute’s online tutorial.

“It helps you reflect on what you’ve learned so that you can go into it deeper,” said Zach Morris-Webb, a Brown-Barge graduate. “It helps you realize what you actually did, the steps you took to actually get there.”

As evidence of how well concept maps can work, Canas cited a school near San Jose, Costa Rica, where math scores soared after they were introduced.

“If you organize [knowledge] as a concept map, then you have to understand the topic,” Canas said. “We want kids to become knowledge constructors instead of just information consumers.”

Links:

Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
http://www.ihmc.us

Inspiration Software Inc.
http://www.inspirationsoftware.com

eSN 2001: ‘Concept mapping’ promises to enhance web browsing
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=2473