Digital Concept Mapping

A new post from Jill Castek

kids at workI started a new study last week with colleagues Heather Cotanch, Rick Beach, John Scott and 6th grade math and science teacher Laura Kretschmar from Lighthouse Community Charter school in Oakland, CA – a frequent collaborator. This work explores middle school students’ and teachers’ experiences with using digital technologies for learning. While I’ve done other studies like this over the years, this one has a distinct focus on student interviews to document learning perspectives.

The school had recently purchased rolling carts of Google Chromebooks, which offered an inexpensive solution to facilitating online work. As a regular user of Google tools I was excited to see the wide-array of apps that can easily loaded on Chromebooks.

chromebooksmore chromebooks

The sixth grade students had begun a unit on climate change and were eager explore some ways digital technologies could be used to enhance their learning experiences. To dig into the project, we began with a familiar process – compare and contrast. In this case, students were examining the concepts of weather and climate to better understand long and short-term changes in the atmosphere. We agreed that after reading, discussing, and generating examples, organizing ideas into a concept map was the best way to create archive of their thinking. We used the free tools from Mind Meister (see http://www.mindmeister.com) as the platform. We made this choice because of the abundance of free templates, the ease of use in incorporating images into the maps, and the ability to showcase the completed maps in a zoom-in and out Prezi-type way.

Concept-mapping apps help students visually represent logical or causal relationships between ideas associated with a certain phenomenon. In using concept-mapping apps, students identified a variety of key words associated with climate and weather and visually organized the logical relationships between these words. Students could insert the words into circles or boxes, drawing lines between ideas with spokes into which they inserted sub-topics. These connecting lines served to define the logical relationships between ideas, for example, how a new word might serve as an illustrative example of a major topic.

Within many concept-mapping apps (such as Bubble.us or Webspiration)  students can create an outline list of words with subcategories within those words, and will then generate different types of maps using these outlines. Many concept-mapping apps also include the ability to color-code ideas as a means of visually representing different categories of information.

Use of concept-mapping apps helps students collaboratively develop and expand topics. Online collaboration to create, revise, and develop maps with others is also a key feature. By sharing the same concept maps, a group of students working on the same project can visually represent their thinking for each other so that they are literally and figuratively on the same page. Students can then pose questions of each other based on their maps, for example, questions about connections between ideas or the need for more information to solidify understanding of a topic. While concept mapping can also be accomplished using paper and pencil, revision capabilities are limited. In the digital form, substantial changes can be made effortlessly, making revision more palatable to students.

While I’m still archiving the students examples and analyzing the interview data we collected, this experience with digital concept mapping suggested that students were able to visually link concepts through logical connections or groupings.  The act of organizing their ideas fostered students’ use of causal/hierarchical thinking. They were motivated to view each other’s maps, which led to collaborative brainstorming that prompted revisions. There’s more to come once the data are analyzed, but I was excited to share my “in-process” thoughts while they were fresh in my mind.

If you’ve used other tools for digital concept mapping and have some insights to share, please leave a comment!  Thanks!

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2 Responses

  1. Jill, what an exciting project. Linking graphic representations with cognitive constructs offers so many opportunities.

  2. I’ve played around a bit with mindmeister as a collaborative brainstorming and concept mapping tool and agree that these kinds of tools have lots of potential to support learning and collaboration.

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