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Concept Maps Discover Digital Repositories: A Look at Tufts VUE

Teaching in a digital environment has brought the traditional hierarchical classroom structure to the online world. A range of tools has emerged to help faculty transfer not only their course materials, but also their course structure for teaching onto the Web. Most course management systems support the uploading of digital objects of many types into courses and sometimes into shareable libraries from which course content can be selected. Typically these systems strive to recreate the structured organization we think about when considering the delivery of traditional course materials online, and they do this well.

Critical thinking and creative knowledge building requires flexibility and responsiveness that tends to differ by discipline and pedagogy. One approach that involves the graphical representation of ideas uses concept mapping to lay out ideas, processes, and their interconnection around a given problem area.

Concept Maps

Concept Maps are graphical representations of knowledge that are comprised of concepts and the relationships among them. Commercial software such as Inspiration or Microsoft’s Visio provides integrated diagramming and outlining environments that can help students comprehend concepts and information. Freely available Concept Mapping software has been around for some time from the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition ( Concept Maps are often used in reference to some particular question for which we seek an answer, called a focus question. The Concept Map may pertain to some situation or event that we are trying to understand through the organization of relevant knowledge.

A significant characteristic of Concept Maps is crosslinks, representing explicit relationships between or among concepts in different regions or domains within a Concept Map. In educational settings, Concept Maps are used to:

  • Organize instructional materials for individual courses or entire curricula
  • Serve as navigational aids for hypermedia
  • Scaffold understanding
  • Consolidate educational experiences
  • Improve affective conditions for learning
  • Aid or provide an alternative to traditional writing
  • Teach critical thinking
When Concept Maps Become Content Maps
Tufts University has built a new tool, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, called the Visual Understanding Environment (VUE, for building Concept Maps. Using a highly flexible, visual interface, VUE maps, structures, and semantically connects electronic content drawn from local file systems, the Web, or FEDORA-based digital library systems. Unlike the concept mapping tools described above, VUE g'es beyond creating flat representations of information and becomes an interactive interface to manipulating the data itself.

VUE is not a replacement for course management systems, but an application designed to address the activity of structuring and presenting digital materials and the ideas. The maps created with VUE become another resource within a course management system or digital repository, literally offering students and instructors an alternative view of a set of curricular materials. VUE leverages the open and extensible development platform of the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) and the FEDORA digital repository to develop a visual environment for structuring.

Concept Maps engage students as active participants in the structuring of information into knowledge and meaning. Through establishing personal connections among materials and/or by adding additional resources to an existing instructional concept map, students begin to relate new information to pre-existing knowledge. These concept maps can then be shared with instructors and peers for further review and discussion. The explicit act of organizing, annotating, and connecting educational resources via a concept map is a powerful educational exercise.

As valuable as Concept Maps have been, they are relatively static, representing interrelationships among ideas that, when created using typical software applications, can at best include URLs to link ideas to Web resources. When concept maps and the ideas they represent are connected to digital resources themselves—not just their links—concept maps also become content maps.

VUE extends the power derived from graphical representation of knowledge into a tool for mapping against and drawing from persistent collections of content contained within digital libraries. Using OKI’s Digital Repository Open Source Interface Definition (OSID), among others, VUE allows users to search, browse, retrieve content from digital repositories, and upload resources into digital collections. The FEDORA digital repository was used in the initial implementation of VUE. However, VUE can be used along with other digital repositories such as DSpace, ArtSTOR, JSTOR, or any repository that implements and exposes an OKI interface.

VUE represents a first step toward bridging traditional boundaries among search tools, digital repositories, and applications for teaching. Faculty and students live in a fluid interconnected world where ideas, content that describes them, and their communication blend together as we gain understanding and meaning in complex patterns. Tools like VUE are promising indications that we might be getting closer to understanding how to represent knowledge in ways that are easy to disseminate and act on in the process of teaching.

What’s a Digital Repository to Do?
VUE and tools similar to it also raise interesting challenges for digital repository owners or builders. VUE reaches into a repository exposed by a software interface (like the OKI DR OSID), bringing the bits representing the content into a new context. It’s important to note that this is done directly, not through some import/export process. It is done without interrupting the user by forcing reauthentication—one of the benefits of the Open Knowledge Initiative approach. Access and permissions are being granted, but behind the scenes, so the user can focus on the task at hand.

Directly pulling content from digital repositories for other uses can raise issues about the integrity of the repository, collection management of the bits therein, and a host of intellectual property questions that often surround the deposition of content into collections in the first place. For many repositories, the separation between the raw content and its presentation raises fundamental questions about what is central about the repository itself. These are important questions and we need to address them now.


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