Article Review: Graduate Students Using Concept Mapping to Visualize Instructional Design Processes

In the article being reviewed, Tian Lou and John Baaki of Old Dominion University completed a one year study evaluating the effect implementing graphic organizers had on students’ perceived learning in regards to the completion of an instructional design project. The study implemented the instructional tool into the final project for three graduate level courses consisting of a total of 24 students. Since the introduction of instructional design in the 1960’s by Robert Gagne, the field has evolved into a more complex due to the change in educational reform. Beginning with the start of the 21st Century, education has seen a shift from the Industrial Age to what is being coined as the Knowledge Society. For about 200 years, a one size fits all, drill and kill approach has been all education has known. However, with invention of the internet, the increased access to technology, change in the workforce and the amount of information readily available exponentially rising educational themes have changed. This is apparent in the instructional models being developed, the implementation of technology in the classroom and in the field. The field of Instructional Design is not immune to the changes, which is shown in the increase of complexity of project requests being made.

Within the cycle of communication, instructional problems that are being addressed are often “ill-structured, difficult problems that are not clearly defined, and have no predetermined solution paths, nor showing consistent relationships among concepts, rules and principles.” (Luo & Baaki, 2012, p. 451) In addition to the poorly defined problems, instructional designers must have a clear understanding in a wide variety of disciplines and content areas. All of these issues, make the career more difficult for new or aspiring instructional designers. Knowing all that has been stated and then some, Lou and Baaki sought out a way to make instructional design a more visual process. A concept map is “an effective graphic organizing tool to visualize students’ internal semantic networks regarding their thought processes and comprehension.” (Luo & Baaki, 2012, p. 451) Numerous of studies have been completed in regards to the benefits of implementing concept maps in a variety of settings. The results show the benefits include “aiding learners in schematizing and organizing their thinking, visually representing the structure of abstract knowledge and concepts and showing their linkages, testing knowledge and understanding of learned concepts and obtaining feedback.” (Luo & Baaki, 2012, p. 451) Concept maps can take shape in a variety of forms: flowcharts, spider maps chronological and hierarchical; each map is beneficial to a different desired outcome. In short, a concept map allows the user to organize their thought process in a visual representation.

Lou and Baaki, implemented collaborative concept mapping (Cacoo) as an instructional technique within each courses final design project. Over a 4 or 5 week timeframe, students used concept mapping, instructor prompts and scaffolding, peer feedback and formative assessments to lead into the completion of the final project design. The research team’s two guiding research questions were: How did the students perceive the use of Cacoo in three different instructional design courses? How did a concept mapping approach facilitate or constrain students’ design process. The data that was collected included students external representation drafts, final presentations and student evaluations. Through examination of quantitative data, students consistently expressed positive views on the implementation of Cacoo. In regards to implementing the instructional tool as an educational strategy students were clear that concept mapping allowed them to organize and structure the team’s thoughts. Although few, a majority of the negative comments were in regards to the limitations set by the tool and not the instructional strategy. The student designers appreciated being able to visualize the thought process of their teammates, actively engage in critical thinking and efficiently and effectively collaborate as a team.

The article, Graduate Students Using Concept Mapping to Visualize Instructional Design Processes makes great strides towards transforming the field of instructional design, dating back to the 1960’s into a 21st Century characterized field. In 2001, educational reform gradually started to change the way educators teach and students learn. The Knowledge society, is centered around four key portions of the 21st Century Learning Framework: life and career skills, learning and innovation skills (4C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity), information, media and technology skills and lastly the core subjects (3Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic) (Zain, 2018, p. 21-22.) The main push behind educational reform is the invention of the world wide web, which changed the amount of information easily within reach. This directly reflects the field of instructional design because due to the amount of information, complexity in content rises which results in more complex projects being requested of instructional designers. With the variety of potential request instructional designers might receive there is a vast range of  knowledge needed of disciplines and content areas to successfully complete the proposed task. However, there may be the case where complexity of the project is outside one instructional designers knowledge. Concept Mapping, is one of the many answers on how to encourage collaboration, teamwork and successful completion of complex projects. It is very easy, for someone who is new to instructional design (student or professional) to easily get lost in the steps and semantics of instructional design. Depending on their background knowledge, the potential to overload an ID’s extrinsic, intrinsic or germane cognitive load is very high due to the amount and variety of information being presented at once. The use of concept mapping as an instructional tool is beneficial because it “enables due enables dual coding of information through verbal and visual modalities.. exerting better effects in long term retrieval of information” (Luo & Baaki, 2012, p. 452.) Lou and Baaki did not only implement concept maps, they also added a collaborative section to the implementation. This allowed peers to co-collaborate on the their particular design project which “reinforces the social interaction that helps successfully sustain critical thinking and thus creating meaningful co-construction of knowledge” (Luo & Baaki, 2012, p. 452.) Collaboration is a scaffolding technique used when content is outside a learner’s zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development is understanding what a student can achieve on their own verses with guidance and/or assistance of others. When content and concepts are outside a students’ zone of proximal development they are unable to analyze and fully understand, however the ability to be able to collaborate with peers visually and verbally reduces cognitive load making the Zone of Proximal Development closer in reach. Taking into account my personal thoughts on the usage of concept maps and the results of the study, the implementation of a visual aid is beneficial in regards to the understanding of the project, the collaboration of ideas, efficiency of the project timeline and the caliber of product supports beginning conversation on the wide spread implementation on concept mapping.

There are a handful of issues with Lou and Baaki’s research which includes a small sample size, narrow scope of instructional designers and the focus on the specific tool instead of the instructional strategy. First, only 24 students tested the implementation of concept mapping as an instructional tool over the span of a year and three masters or doctorate courses. This is concerning because the sample size is extremely small compared to the amount of instructional designers in graduate school resulting in an inaccurate representation of results. The implementation of concept mapping was only researched in regards to student instructional designers who have only experienced instructional design within their program. Therefore, their ability to appropriately state the improvement concept maps had on the design process is not adequate. Lastly, a majority of the student feedback was focused on Cacoo (the software) and not the implementation of an instructional tool. Due to the issues stated previously, the research could be improved by increasing the sample size, the length of the study and including instructional design professionals.

The ways to expand the study directly correlate with the issues and flaws of the study stated above; larger sample size, wider scope of instructional designers and length of the study. Most importantly, the effectiveness of the implementation of visual aids, specifically concept maps, needs to be evaluated in regards to the effectiveness shown in professional instructional design teams. In the study, all aspects of the design project are regulated. Aspects of real world instructional design projects cannot be controlled, therefore experimenting with visual aids with professional instructional design give the results a more realistic representation of the tools effectiveness. In order to give the study more credibility, the length of the study needs to be extended. It is not safe to say that what is effective in one instructional design project will be successful in all; Lou and Baaki needs to evaluate the implementation in a wide variety of project types, level of complexity and level of professionals. Big picture, this idea has the opportunity to be a is a game changer in the field of instructional design. Visual aids and concept mapping has it links to multiple learning theories including behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism and connectivism backing it as an educationally sound instructional tool but also shows success in educational experimentation. However, before it becomes massively implemented into the world of instructional design more research needs to be conducted to turn concept mapping from an enhancement to a necessity.

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