Concept Maps, Brainstorming, and Visual Tools

And then the magic happens by Mark McLaughlin
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

I’ve always been an experimenter in the classroom. And luckily, I’ve always had pretty easy-going and willing-to-be-experimented-on students. So when I recently asked my Grade 8 students to try out different ways of creating a sociogram, they said, “Sure!”*

Here was the task: a sociogram of sorts to show the relationships between characters in Twelfth Night, part of our unit titled “For the Fun of It: Merry-making in Society.”  As you can see if you visit the post, I gave my students several choices with which to try out their graphic-organizer creation skills. Here were the general results:

  • Inspiration was by far the most popular initial choice. You’ll note that I’ve emphasized the word “initial.”
  • Gliffy was the second most popular initial choice (the risk-takers). 
  • Few students tried any of the other options listed. I’ll come back to this issue later.
  • Those students who tried Inspiration first were each met with a problem as soon as they finished their lovely diagram: the difficulty of exporting into a useable file for posting on their blog.
Now, I must assume that most students chose Inspiration first because it is so widely used in our school — I believe even our younger ES students use Kidspiration. So, by the time they get to me in Grade 8, they are pretty comfortable with the ins and outs of the program. But I am guessing they have never had to do much with their fancy graphics before, other than perhaps print them out.
The best we could do — and this really was a band-aid job — was to take a screen clipping of the diagram. But using old technology like WindowsXP, which only allows the Print Screen command, meant that all the clippings were saved as BMP files, which are unsupported by Edublogs (and most blogs, I’ve since been told).**  Big problem. A few students tried converting using Zamzar, but that took an exceptionally long time on our Vietnamese internet connection, and those who were patient enough to wait for it discovered that once converted, the quality was definitely compromised. Once uploaded, they were barely visible. Students felt they had done a lot of work that could not be properly published. 
However, those who used Gliffy found this step an absolute cinch. They finished the task in about one-third the time of those who used Inspiration and were then figuring out ways to export their images. While the “Gliffy group” spent a wee bit more time at the start learning how to use the tool — and, btw, they did teach themselves, as I confessed right off the bat that I had not used it before — once they finished, their images were uploaded lickety-split onto their blogs. In fact, the tool’s effectiveness even, I daresay, inspired a few members of the Inspiration Group to go back and start over again, using Gliffy instead. 
As a point of comparison — look at these two sociograms: One using Gliffy, and one using Inspiration. Which one is more functional? Which one is “prettier”? And wouldn’t it be nice if we could combine those two elements? As it stands now, Gliffy got the job done better. (You can check out the other ones by going here and then clicking on a few student blogs in the left sidebar under EngA08.)
My takeaways from all this?
  1. Inspiration, while definitely a preferred learning tool for both me and my students, has limitations that previously were not revealed, as we had been using the software for internal purposes, rather than for digital publishing. Perhaps there is something we are missing that the Inspiration team will let me know about… ? We’d be happy to find a way to make this work better.
  2. Online tools and applications are becoming easier and easier to use all the time, even with an internet connection as slow as ours!
  3. I’m definitely more inspired now (sorry, Inspiration!) to use some of the other online concept-mapping tools available, some of which I listed in the original post. I am already thinking about which one I might ask my students to experiment with next!
  4. I’ve yet to be fired for experimenting with my students. I think that’s probably because I teach some fabulous kids who are more than willing to be guinea pigs!


*Well, okay. They didn’t actually say that. But they didn’t complain either. They jumped-in without whining too much. I teach great students!

**Special thanks to both Sue Waters and Bill Genereux for counselling me through the logistics!

3 thoughts on “Concept Maps, Brainstorming, and Visual Tools

  1. Thanks for sharing your story! We really appreciate the feedback and love the energy you (and your students) have. If there are suggestions you have for us based on your students use, we’d love to hear it.
    Thanks again!
    debi k at gliffy dot com

  2. Although it’s not immediately obvious, it is possible to export Inspiration work as an image that can be embedded into a blog. Here’s how:

    Once your concept map is completed:
    1. Click File> Export
    2. Go to the Graphics File tab at the top of the pop-up window
    3. Choose a file format – jpeg will work for you blogs
    4. Click Save and choose a location to save your work.

    Once you have saved the file to your computer you can upload it to your blog using your normal method.


  3. It sounds like you are doing the very best you can with limited resources. The best teachers know it isn’t about the tools anyway, it is about the thinking that the students do. Yours seem to be doing a lot of great thinking!

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