From Meaningful Learning to a World Collaborative Net of Knowledge Builders

Last Wednesday, Dr Alberto Cañas’ presented on Cmap Tools at PUCSP (Pontifícia Universidade Católica) The event was sponsored by Microsoft, which has recently partnered with the university to develop a collaborative portal (Potencial Ilimitado) for students to develop knowledge using the Cmap Tools. Teachers will act as catalysers while Microsoft will intervene as technology experts.

Dr Canas gave a quick background on the Institute of Human Cognition and explained its purpose: devise how to adapt technology to human interactions and needs. According to him it becomes easier to chart and understand how brains react to the different stimuli by capturing sensations and how these are transmitted and interpreted by the brain.

Through a series of examples (Feathers and Beaks/Moral Obstacles to Artificial Flight) , Dr Canas highlighted the importance of not being lured by the senses or lenses through which we understand the world but always have the theoretical framework in which such events happen so as not replicate
systems that are not effective (like for instance, use the web in a linear way as a book instead of taking advantage of its connected net structure). If fundamentals are understood, then technology can be adapted. Theory shows that conceptual maps facilitate the explicit expression of knowledge and help people to manage it – put in practice what they know.

According to David Ausubel and Joseph Novak, knowledge is organized in concepts (regularities/perceptions/patterns in objects and events) and each concept opens a number of other concepts that are related forming a collection of propositions – unities of meaning and statements (the boat is blue). These statements are not necessarily true or false as they are based on what I see/believe in/was exposed to. Each person builds their own concepts according to their exposure and experience of the world. Meaningful learning involves starting with key ideas which show what the learner already knows – by determining this one can move forward and teach what is missing.

Conceptual Maps make it easier to capture expert knowledge, track the relationship among different concepts and thus understand/represent more explicitly what people know. They are organized around concepts and statements which are more of a network than a hierarchy (keywords linked by connective words + verbs) As they are not linear, knowledge can be accessed at any point. Maps are also a way of better organizing the text/curriculum concept as they help teachers to see that it is not the fragmented topics from a curriculum that are important but facilitating and making learners find what they lack and what they know and how to bridge this gap.

According to Canas, maps should reflect the learning process and not abandoned once they have been used to illustrate a concept. Students should add to them whenever they learn something new or complementary so as to chart how their knowledge on the subject is built. The maps should reflect the continuous updates (like blogs) of learning process.

These maps can be uploaded to the institute’s server and are then converted into a web page, to which one can connect other data and information (photos, other maps). Knowledge should be co-constructed and not consumed only.

Professor José Armando Valente brought up the point that technology has individualized knowledge representation by allowing learners to represent it in their own way as opposed to the traditional linear representation. He questioned whether Cmaps would reduce the other possibilities of expression by imposing a new way of thinking. He also wondered whether such maps would force the “crepe generation” (multi-taskers with extensive but thin knowledge) to focus on concepts in more depth.

Although I like the web of connections and relationships we can see on the maps, I was somehow worried about the effect of representing the world around us through knowledge bricks (nouns that describe a static concept). I may be wrong, but Cmaps does not seem to focus on the verbs and the dynamics of social interaction. My fear, like Valente’s, is that because the university is being sponsored by such powerful firm and the bandwagon effect, most experiments turn this way. IMHO, one cannot resume learners’ experience to describing and classifying. Like Sasha Barab, I believe that a variety of tools should be used to analyze, make a synthesis and interpret the world from a variety of perspectives.

One should not forget that the map is not the territory.

“Maps are never value-free images; except in the narrowest Euclidean sense they are not in themselves either true or false. Both in the selectivity of their content and in their signs and styles of representation, maps are a way of conceiving, articulating and structuring the human world which is biased towards, promoted by, and exerts influence upon sets of social relations. By accepting such premises it becomes easier to see how appropriate they are to manipulation by the powerful in society.” Harley. J. B. “Maps, Knowledge, and Power,” The Iconography of Landscape, ed. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994.

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