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Category: Overviews

Overview: Concept and Knowledge Domain Mapping

July 17, 2017 • portalmanager

Concept mapping is not new. Its educational benefits have been known for over 40 years. Faculty and students can map relationships between concepts using simple tools and a basic visual grammar of nodes and links.

Possible uses with students include:

  • Raw note taking with freely moveable, unconnected text nodes;
  • Re-organizing notes and making connections;
  • Ordering ideas (nodes) into a hierarchy connected by lines (edges) with semantic connections (edge comments);
  • Classifying and marking up data nodes with metadata (attributes) and style types (system styles, user defined styles, level styles).

For project planning, concept maps are useful for:

  • Developing logic models
  • Dynamic outlining
  • Organizing sub-projects
  • Communicating project structure to collaborators

These are three concept mapping tools that we like and rely on. All are free to use.


Freeplane is an offshoot of the Freemind project. Freeplane uses the classic hierarchical mapping model in which all concepts are treated as topics or sub-topics branching from a central idea, question, or concept. Branches can be collapsed or opened as needed to focus on specific sections. They may contain text, hyperlinks, pictures and more. Content can also be password protected or connected to a particular time or filter.

Distinguishing Features

  • Freeplane has a smaller feature set than VUE or Cmap Tools but aims for maximum usability. For example, users can add content as simple paragraphs and headings, then reorganize and style it later.
  • Freeplane creates strict hierarchical knowledge maps without circular references. This can be very useful when introducing conceptual mapping to students, or when data absolutely MUST have a strict hierarchy.
  • Map files are straight HTML, so can be edited in a text editor or viewed in any browser.
  • It runs on any operating system that has a current version of Java installed and can be run locally or portably from removable storage like a USB drive.
  • Freeplane has a large contributor community. New features can be added using scripts written in Groovy (based on JavasScript) or Python.


The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is an Open Source project from Tufts University that supports collaborative teaching, learning and research. VUE provides a flexible visual environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing digital information. Digital content can be accessed via the Web, or using the VUE’s “Resources” panel to tap into digital repositories, FTP servers and local file systems.

Distinguishing Features

  • VUE’s Pathways lets presenters create annotated trails through maps that become expert guided walk-throughs.
  • For presentations, Pathways provides a “slide view” of map information. Presenters can focus on content (slide view) while preserving the information’s context (map view), by toggling between two views.
  • VUE supports map merging, export for statistical analysis, and overlaying semantic ontologies and metadata schemas.

Cmap Tools

Cmap software is a product of the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC). Users construct, navigate, share and criticize knowledge models represented as concept maps. Cmap Tools stresses real-time collaborative map development and evaluation.

Distinguishing Features

One very useful feature of all three mapping tools here is the ability to display a map of connections as a web page, with links to view or download any associated resources. Cmap Tools goes further, and stands out for its collaboration support. Maps can be constructed on a desktop computer, then shared or linked with other maps through a Cmap Server client.

Categories: Overviews

Overview: Plain Text Editors vs Word Processors

July 13, 2017 • portalmanager

Anyone who works with computer code or large datasets is probably familiar with a text editor. However, those who’ve worked mostly with a word processor like MS Word,  Apple Pages, or Word Perfect might not know what a text editor is, or why it sometimes is the better tool.

Differences in a Nutshell

Word processors were designed to format text for presentation or production on a printed page. Word processor text contains hidden formatting information controlling margins, spacing, format (bold, italic,etc.) and other information needed for print output. The hidden coding makes word processor files significantly larger for a given amount of displayed text compared to plain text files. At one time nearly all word processors used proprietary file formats, but MS Word and others are moving towards a more standardized, XML-based file format.

Text editors are generally used for writing and editing code files for computer programs. Plain text files contain only visible characters, and usually are displayed using a monospace font. Plain text editors generate standardized file formats, with “.txt” as the default ending suffix. Other suffixes like “.html,” “.js,” and “.php” identify what programming or web-oriented language the file contains, and what programs can read the file successfully. Regardless of the suffix though, if the file is written in plain text, a plain text editor can open it, display the contents for editing, and save the file in correct format.

Why Do You Need a Text Editor?

A plain text editor is surprisingly useful. These are just a few examples to show why.

Text Cleanup. This is how many users get hooked on a text editor; they excel at stripping out extraneous hidden markup. Pasting text from a word processor or web page into a text editor removes all hidden data, leaving only the visible characters. Text that does not copy/paste correctly into a word processor file directly from the source usually can be cleaned up with a quick round trip through a text editor.

Text  Extraction. Most text editors have tools for stripping raw HTML and Javascript markup out of source code copied from web pages. This can save hours of re-typing.

Faster on BIG Files. While a word processing file more than 2,000 lines (50-60 single-spaced pages) long becomes unwieldy, a 100,000-line still can be opened and handled quite easily.

Data Editing. Tabular data stored in a spreadsheet can be exported in a “.csv” or “.tsv” (comma-, tab-separated values) format that can be read by anyone with a plain text editor. , even if the file has some errors.

Search & Replace. Plain text is MUCH easier to search and edit. Besides the familiar S/R functions in word processors, most text editors support GREP searching. There’s a learning curve initially, but GREP searches can find and replace very complex strings with multiple wildcards.

Picking a Text Editor

There are only a handful of word processing programs in general use, but dozens of different plain text editors, and many people use more than one. Nearly all handle basic tasks well, so choosing a text editor depends more on which automated functions or advanced features are important, and how “comfortable” it feels to the user.

Wikipedia has an excellent list of plain text editors. Use it to compare features and cost. Or, head over to the Toolbox, where we have listed the text editors we like. If in doubt, start with simple and free, then move up as your specific needs become more apparent.


Categories: Overviews