Tuesday Tool Tip: Cmap

monkey computer toolsCmap: Free and easy tool for concept mapping

I was wrong; it happens sometimes.  I have avoided trying out Cmap for years because I assumed that something developed at an Institute for Human and Machine Cognition would be arcane, hard to use, and meant only for those who could spend days setting it up, had administrative access to servers, or would be willing to live on discussion lists with hard-core techies until they could figure it out.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken.  IHMC is affiliated with the Florida University system, and they have developed a free tool you can figure out, by yourself, in a couple hours.  Right now, Cmap seems to be the concept mapping tool I have been seeking for a long time, something I can heartily recommend to students and faculty.

It’s free for everyone (I know, I said that already, but I want to repeat it).
It’s simple but flexible.
You can attach files of different types (pdfs, images, spreadsheets) as well as embed urls.
You can easily share your work with other people.
Supports reciprocal relationships and non-hierarchical relationships, so can be used to model reasonably complex systems; you can also hide nodes and link nodes between maps to deal with increasing complexity.
There’s good documentation.


So here’s what I did this afternoon, in about 2 hours, removing time spent on lunch and meetings:Concept map made using Cmap

This is just a very simple example to show some of its features.

Concept maps are important, both in education and in personal knowledge management, because they help us make order out of our information; they are a step in the direction of making sense of all the material that we are trying to relate.  They force us to surface our assumptions, clarify relationships, and help us place new material in the context of what we already know.David Hyerle calls them tools for “thinking about the box” (Visual Tools for Transforming Information into Knowledge, 91).

Further reading:

Novak, Joseph D. Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations.  Second edition. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Novak, Joseph D. and Cañas, Alberto J. “The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them.” Technical Report IHMC Cmap Tools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008.

Teaching and Learning with Concept Maps at Inspiration Software, a big player in the K-12 mind mapping and concept mapping market.  They have a product meant for higher education, called Inspiration Pro, available by subscription.  You can save your maps only online, and once you give up your subscription you lose access to your maps.  Additionally, you cannot attach documents to your maps (except other Inspiration maps and weblinks) – no pdfs, word processing or spreadsheet files, which seriously limits their usefulness.





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  • Daniel

    How would you compare it with vue? http://vue.tufts.edu/


  • Elisabeth

    I haven’t used Vue in a very long time. I rearrange maps a lot, and the way to move objects in Vue (by nudging them a tiny bit at a time, rather than dragging and dropping) was a deal breaker for me. But I looked at it just now, after seeing your comment, and I really want to love it! They are continuing to develop it in so many useful and sophisticated ways. I love the idea of semantic mapping and Zotero integration, to mention just two I noticed, and it has always had appeal as a presentation tool

    If you use it, please tell us more about what you do with it. In my current work, I need to recommend something simple and flexible to students and faculty for basic concept mapping. Vue disappointed me years ago, and I never went back to it. You stumble across Cmap every time you do a search on concept mapping, partly because Joseph Novak is associated both with the development of the idea of concept mapping as an educational tool and with the Cmap software.

  • Daniel

    I had the same experience as you, but recently I started to look for a concept mapping application and had another look at vue, it seems a lot better than when I first tried it. I guess I will have to try both and see which one fits my workflow. Thanks!

    • Elisabeth

      I’m glad you brought it back to my attention. Perhaps I should look at it again. I like the simplicity of Cmap. It’s optimized for concept mapping, and as I said, you can begin using it quickly. Vue seems to do more – it’s also a presentation tool – and it probably takes longer to learn.

      I learned early on that while I am fascinated with mapping tools, I had to commit to a few and not always go haring off after new ones. For one thing, many are abandoned after a few years as funding runs out or professors develop new interests or move on. In the private sector, innovative new tools don’t find funding or a market, or they are bought out. But in the end, a search for the perfect tool can be great fun and a tremendous way to procrastinate. Unless, of course, you want to make a career out of reviewing different tools. But that’s not what I’m paid for! And i have a life outside of mapping tools.

  • April

    We teach CmapTools to grad students and faculty members at our university library – take a look at our paper “Teaching, Designing, and Organizing: Concept Mapping for Librarians”