Friday, June 01, 2007

FREE Inspiration

Writers use them for brainstorming. Scientists use them for solving problems and organizing information. Whether you call it a word web, a concept map, or just a bunch of little boxes connected with arrows, the process writing down concepts, figuring out how they are related, and connecting them together can be a valuable teaching tool.

Two of the most well-known software tools for doing this are Inspiration and its primary grade companion, Kidspiration. These programs are great, but they are not cheap. In fact school licensing for these can be almost as expensive as licensing Microsoft Office.

Now, finally, there is a FREE alternative to Inspiration. It’s called Cmap Tools. You can download it from their web site. ( Mac, Windows, and Linux versions are available.

When you install it and run it for the first time, you will be asked to create a username and password. This is required so later on you can share your concept maps with others or even set up a collaborative concept map that can be edited by multiple users. Even if you don’t want to do this, you still need to create a username and password in order to use the product.

If you’re used to using Inspiration, you may find the Cmap Tools does things a little differently, but those differences are not major. You can’t do “rapid fire” concept maps and there is no clip art included in the software. You can add images, links, and annotations. You can also link to Word documents, videos, and other Cmap files.

To get a good idea of what the process of creating a concept map is like, take a look at this tutorial video they have created. Creating Concepts and Propositions (requires Quicktime)

They also have other tutorial videos that explain how to use the software:
Adding Resources
Introduction to the Views Window
How to Create a Folder

The one thing that Cmap Tools seems to be lacking is the ability to export your concept map as an outline that can be opened in Microsoft Word. There is an “outline view” that can be exported as text (.txt) but the text does not have the traditional outline formatting (I, II, III, A, B, C, etc.)

On the plus side, your concept maps can be exported as jpegs and as web pages (html). You can also upload your map to one of their public Cmap servers (I have yet to try this) and make it viewable to anyone with a web browser. Once it is online, your map is given a unique web address (URL). Anyone with a web browser can access it, and anyone with Cmap Tools can be invited to contribute and edit it.

I’m already brainstorming on ways this software could be used with students. Here are a couple of ideas:

“What’s the Connection?”
Use Cmap Tools to create a collection of terms. Save the file. Have students open the file, look at the terms, and figure out how they are related. It’s up to them to move the terms around and link them together with arrows using the correct propositions.

“Family Tree”
Have students start by typing their name as the first concept. Then they add their relatives around them as different concepts. Finally they need to add links stating each person’s relationship to the student (brother, sister, cousin, uncle) as well as their relationships to each other.

I still think Kidspiration is a valuable tool for primary grades and would not want to replace it, but I could definitely use Cmap Tools with older students – grades 5 and up.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

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