I was searching for a way to organize my thoughts. With several papers to write, and a bunch of ideas floating in my brain, I needed to find a way to capture them. The linear-ness of a Microsoft Word document wasn't working for me and Powerpoint didn't let me capture enough information in an easily way. So I figured I'd try to give concept mapping a try.
I had used mind mapping software, such as FreeMind, in the past – but I always got stuck. In order to create a new node, you had to connect it to a prior node, and I could never figure out what the node connection patterns should look like. What should I use as the parent node? What happens if I discover a different parent node after I started? And why can't I connect a single node to multiple other nodes? The FreeMind (and many other mind mapping) models used a tree approach – which although isn't strictly linear, it still requires me to think in a linear manner. It also only lets me store keywords or short phases – it isn't useful for storing the various rambling notes I write to capture my thoughts.
Using wikipedia, I found a List of concept mapping and mind mapping software. Looking in the free section, I searched for solutions that would work on my Mac. There were a couple of alternatives, but I was drawn to Compendium because the Genre was listed as "social sciences". Another option was VUE; however, it does not allow you to store information inside nodes – similar to other mind mapping software. Note that both Compendium and VUE have Windows versions.
Compendium seemed to be the answer to my prayers – or at least my concept mapping tool wants! Finally, I found a tool that lets me create nodes before having to figure out how they are connected. It also lets me connect one node to many other nodes – I no longer had the 1-to-1 constraint – my brain could wander freely. But to top it all off, I could store lots of information in each node. I give the node a meaningful title then ramble on all I want within the node. The tool also lets me nest concept maps within concept maps – pretty cool. To top it off, it generates a Web Outline that provides all my random ideas in an organized linear fashion.
Now, its not all roses – I did find a few things that I don't care too much about. I do wish that it had a way to automatically arrange nodes to a grid pattern, rather than just top-down or left-right. With a lot of nodes, I found that when I did an auto arrange it spread things out too much such that it scrolled well off my screen. I also found that the node names didn't necessarily align with paper writing or data analysis – the tools is clearly targeted more towards project management. That being said, it does what I need, and it does it pretty well, given the price, its hard to find fault!
Compendium Process for Presentation and Paper Writing
For writing papers, I use Compendium to capture all my notes and ideas and to organize the ideas – at least at a high level.
To do this, I start by creating a new map node for my notes. Since I'm usually writing things for a given course, I have a new "database" project for each course, and a new map for each activity within a course. I add note nodes to my map somewhat randomly, mostly to just get the ideas out of my head and into the tool. This is stream of consciousness writing, so I don't worry about grammar or spelling. The funny thing is, I can write this way easily enough when I'm adding notes nodes in compendium but I struggle with the "just get it out onto the page" process when I open a blank Microsoft Word document. The ability to open and close ideas and write them down in a random order really helps me just get things written. I make sure that I give each note node a meaningful title: this helps when I need to organize the ideas later.
My next step is to connect the nodes into some logical pattern (right-click and drag to connect nodes). I might not wait until I've done creating all the nodes to do this – I start connecting whenever I feel there is a pattern emerging. I used two types of connectors, one for logical flow and one for related ideas (once you have a line, you can highlight and right-click to change the line colour). In the end, this is like creating an outline from all the various ideas.
When I'm done with connecting all the ideas on the page, I try to use the arrange function (from a blank spot in the background, right-click and select Arrange) to either arrange the nodes across the top of the screen or along the side of the screen. If there are a lot of nodes or a lot of interconnections, I don't recommend doing this and it spreads all the nodes out, and you don't really get a good picture. But if the node connections flow nicely (as in the picture above) and you don't have too many of them, it is nice to see them.
My final Compendium step is to export the information to a Web Outline (File > Export > Web Outline). This generates a file with all my ideas nicely organized based upon how I setup the connections.
Now that I have all my unfiltered ideas, I create a storyline. I like to use PowerPoint for this because it allows me to move content around easily, but in a linear way. I can keep the key information in the notes sections of the slide, and just use the titles as way to organize ideas. If I'm writing a presentation, I'll develop the slides once I've finished figure out the storyline. I'd like to emphasize that I avoid using bullet points in slides as much as possible – I try to use graphics, quotes, or whatever I need to guide me through the story, without bullets whenever possible.
Finally, I use the content of my presentation, with all my notes, to write the final paper. The paper writing process goes pretty quickly because I have all the information at my fingertips and it is already organized – at least that is the theory!
Compendium Process for Data Analysis
I also use Compendium for data analysis, although I've only done this for interview data and the interview was limited to 45-minutes, so 600 lines of transcription. If the data content was bigger, I'd need to look into using multiple maps, which I haven't tried yet. For the data I had to analyze, I found Compendium to be a real time saver.
First, I transcribed the data using Dragon Dictate (a subject for a different blog article) and Microsoft Word. I setup my document to show line numbers (Layout > Text Layout > Line Numbers), then I set it to read-only so I don't change anything by accident (Tools > Protect Document > Read Only).
I then print the document and write margin notes. These notes give me a hint about what categories might emerge from the content. I haven't yet figured out a way to effectively write margin notes without printing the document. Perhaps this is something that I'll be able to do after I get my iPad. I'll look at this in a future blog post, for now, I print and write in the margins with my purple pen – because I can't use red (it looks too much like grading) and blue and black don't initiate my creativity.
Based upon the margin notes, I create categories. I find it best for Compendium if I can limit the categories to no more than 11 because this is what fits nicely across the top of my screen. Anymore than that and I need to scroll to see them all, which becomes a problem later in the process. Once I have my categories defined, I create a new map for my analysis and add a node for each category (I use the question node). For each category node, I add a description of that category. This comes in handy later when I forget what types of things belong to which categories.
Next, I take my interview data and decide what the "unit of analysis" will be. In my case, this was a paragraph, which I had created during transcription. For each unit of analysis I create a node (I use the Pro (+) node). I use the line numbers as the title of the node and put the actual transcript text as the contents of the node. I add all nodes before making any connections. When placing nodes on the screen, I create a grid pattern, adding them in order to ensure I don't miss any.
Once I have all the unit of analysis nodes added, I start to connect them to categories. I find it best to do this randomly, rather than in order, so that I'm looking at the text and not the context that the text was in. I open a node, decide which categories it belongs to, connect to each of the categories (right-click and drag), then I change the type of the node to Answer (right-click > Change Type To …). Changing the type causes both the connection line and the node icon to change colours, so I can easily tell which nodes I've analyzed and which I still need to do. I continue this process until I've placed all the unit of analysis nodes into categories.
Foolishly, I ran the auto-arrange. I don't recommend the top-down or left-right auto arrange feature with this type of map. There are too many interconnections, that it just causes the entire map to be spread out over multiple screens and you can't follow any of the connections. It is best to leave the map looking like it hasn't been aligned.
Once I've finished connecting everything, I export the Web Outline (File > Export > Web Outline). The Web Outline shows each category and under that category the content of each unit of analysis node. I can then read this to discover the "themes" within each category. If I want to do an analysis of themes, I can repeat the process for categories – except, I don't need to re-enter each of the unit of analysis nodes, I can just copy them from the first map and paste them to my theme map (note, it would be better if I actually "cloned" them to the theme map, so that they can be changed without affecting the original category map). Note that this works in theory, but I haven't yet tested it in practice, as I didn't need to do this next level of analysis.
So far, I'm finding Compendium very useful for helping me organize my thoughts. One request that I will make to the developers is to add an additional Arrange option, to arrange items to fit on the screen, maybe an "arrange by grid" option.
Soon to come, articles on: Dragon Dictate, Dropbox, iPad, Evernote, and other tools I find helpful in my research.
If you have any questions, suggestions or ideas for future articles, please leave a comment.