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Overview – Concept and Knowledge Maps

Concept mapping is not new to education. Its 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

Different development projects have stressed various tools and strategies. These are three concept mapping tools that we like and use. 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.