31 October 2010

Knowledge Maps – Part I: An Introduction

    Most of us are familiar with the geographic Maps, during school hours or outdoor trips we had at least once the possibility of guiding ourselves using a Map. Paraphrasing Alfred Korzybski, “the map is not the territory”, though a Map offers a bird’s eye view of the territory, it might be not perfect, nor so detailed as we would like it to be, though it allows people identifying their position, their destination, their route left behind and the one ahead, the obstacles, the boundaries, the known and unknown zones. Our marvelous memory allows us storing details of such Maps, more or less perfect copies of the Maps, voluntarily or involuntarily memorized. Even more, we are creating in our brain an adaptable dynamic Mental Map of the world we live in, reflecting the changes occurred in it the way we perceive them. It is what Robinson, quoted by [1] calls it “reduction of reality” and “construction of an analogical space”, the complex structure of reality being reduced to an easy to memorize Map attempting to be a reflection of reality. A geographic Map uses Names, color, spatial organization, and a small set of symbols in order to represent a projection of the geographical world we live in. In a similar manner we could map also the various types of knowledge using a similar set of tools known as Knowledge Maps or simply K-maps.

    Especially between students, could be met the practice of underlining or marking a chunk of text with special marker(s), highlighting the respective text as important, at least for a second review. The chunk of text could be a concept, a definition or a whole paragraph, and that’s actually the input for a K-map. In theory you could put the whole chunks of texts together on post-it or electronic documents, group them together in some way, and there you have a rudimentary K-map. Thus could be intuited that a K-map is a graphic organizer of chunks of texts identified as information or knowledge. Putting together row text allows structuring the content based on identified associations, it could be sequential structure, logical implication, importance, topic, etc. Are thus are created implied or explicit association between the various chunks of text. Further value could be added by breaking the text in smaller chunks, summarize a chunk in fewer words, replace words with more meaningful words, add numbering, symbols, other types of markings (e.g. NB = “nota bene”, QED = quod erat demonstrandum), references, questions, etc. Of course, the same could be done in the book itself though ignoring the fact that book’s owner or further readers could argue such methods, the value comes from having the chunks of text coming from different books in one place or, if you want, in fewer text containers, and the electronic documents make this approach such an easy task.

    From a visual perspective, processing a whole chunk of text could be time consuming, especially when we look for specific information, typically key words, primary concepts, definitions, etc. Marking such text in special ways brings some additional value, though the linear character of text makes it still difficult to process. What if we break the text at conceptual level? Wouldn’t such output be easier to process? Now it depends also on each person’s capabilities, though working with concepts seems closer to the mental structure of our mind, in the way meaning is represented and created. What if we further represent the associations between concepts explicitly, giving them names, and thus associating other concepts with them? Wouldn’t be such structures easier to process and understand? Such structures would be also K-maps, though their content is more refined. Actually the concept-based and whole propositions could be mixed together in K-maps, the degree of refinement of such concepts being more a figure of taste or, as will be further seen, of philosophy.

    Until now we considered a K-map as being an aggregation of chunks of text of various granularities, implied or explicit associations, and the later could be labeled using other more or less standardized concepts. We talked also about formatting, meaningful display, resources, symbols and other types of markings. These are in fact the content elements of a K-map, but in definitive what is a K-map?!

    Extrapolating the above considerations, a Knowledge Map or K-map could be considered as a visual graphical tool used to aggregate and represent information or knowledge. The definition seems to need further refinement because the graphical character implies a visual component, representation could involve aggregation and thus the later term could be abandoned, while following the DIKW pyramid, knowledge involve information. Graphical is the form of representation, while the role of visual is to represent explicitly the channel of communication, in fact stressing its visual, respectively graphical character, a K-map could be considered as synonym to visual aid or graphical organizer, terms more frequent used, especially in teaching. No matter of the degree of knowledge encompassed, a representation of the knowledge is not the knowledge itself, it resumes thus to information that triggers knowledge and the associations existing between information. Thus, a K-map could be defined as a visual graphical tool used to represent information and the associations existing between them, either implicit or explicit. The term information encompasses here any type of symbols or chunk of texts. When information is present in its most granular form, at concept level, the K-map is a visual graphical tool used to represent concepts and the associations existing between them.

    The definition of a K-map represent the “what” from the W5H1 syntagm, how about the why, who, when, how, by whom and by what means? Why a K-map, isn’t the text or what we know enough? Do we really have to break the knowledge into such maps? Maybe we don’t, it depends on each persons capacities, some of us have a really good memory, retain everything they read and recalled it any time. For others, such capabilities come with some effort, spending some time in memorizing the information we consider as useful for the future, and also this step depends on each person’s capabilities and skills. As mentioned in introduction, the read material could be “formatted”, broken into pieces, annotated, summarized, restructured in order to increase the efficiency of memorization and recall. According to researchers, in brain itself takes place some unconscious restructuring of information, associations are created, strengthened and removed, the later activity resulting in forgetting the information once stored, the recovery of such information necessitating a review of the source or sources used in the first place to acquire the respective information. Considering the huge amount of information our brain deals with, it’s almost impossible to identify during a simple read, all the connections existing between the various concepts assimilated, especially when they aren’t so evident. This perspective of what’s happening in our brain is quite simplistic, though can be discovered already some gaps in the learning process, gaps which in theory could be addressed with the help of K-maps. As its name and definition denote, a K-map has the function of a map, used to represent knowledge. Once such a map created, it would be easier for us to access it, and thus to refresh our information, eventually use it as a reference to the actual text. In addition, when evaluating the associations of such a map, existing or inexistent, we could identify new associations, conditions under which they hold (e.g. range of applicability, exceptions), new concepts, new contexts, etc. Let’s not forget that the human is a social being, the meaning of the concepts we deal with relying also their meaning at macro level – organizations, communities of practice, friends or any other types of groups. The individual maps could be used in order to compare and evaluate knowledge, collective collaborative and coordinative creation of K-maps coming with their benefits too. They could be used as a baseline for learning, negotiation, documentation or (self-) evaluation. 

    The creation of a K-map requires additional time, time we don’t always have. Does it really make sense to create such a map all the times? It’s probably recommended to create it when we acquire new knowledge, especially when we want to identify the concepts on which the respective chunk of knowledge is built upon. Once the backbone concepts mastered, the necessity of a map decreases to some degree, in the end its necessity depending on individual needs. A K-map could be useful also when externalizing the knowledge, especially the tacit knowledge, in organizations being quite a valuable tool in documenting the various types of information organization work with, process maps, flow maps, value stream maps, being several examples of such K-maps.

    How to create a K-map? In definitive maybe we create such maps without knowing it, it’s built in our “ADN” as we often arrive to express complex thoughts by externalize them in diagrammatic form. There are more than 50 types of K-maps available in the literature: Concept Maps, Semantic Nets, Conceptual Graphs, Mind Maps, and so on. They have many similarities, often the similarities residing in the philosophies used to create them. Adhering to one or more of such maps is a question of need, preferences, habitude and requirement. Sometimes also deviations from the philosophy behind a map could prove to be useful as long satisfies a purpose, same as a map arrives to be misused, for example by placing too much content, be it irrelevant or relevant, or of using too much formatting, not respecting guidelines, etc. There are several requirements a K-map should satisfy – it should be simple to use and navigate, with an approachable level of complexity and thus understandability, adaptive and dynamic.

    “By what means” could refer here to the tools used to create K-maps and the channels used to distribute them. Again it’s a question of need, preferences, habitude and requirements. In the past years appear many tools used for the creation of K-maps, having multiple features, but still lacking in representational content the human mind is used to. The paper and a crayon could prove efficient as well, while those with an exceptional memory could create such maps directly in the inner mental world. Everything is possible, everything it’s a question of practice and self-improvement of techniques.

[1] Hyerle, D. 2008. Thinking Maps®: A Visual Language for Learning. In: Thinking Maps®: A Visual Language for Learning, ISBN: 978-1-84800-149-7. [Online] Available from: http://www.springerlink.com/content/x57121720731381j/ (Accessed: 23 June 2009)

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