Concept Map vs. PowerPoint for Briefings

What has PowerPoint given the knowledge worker besides universality? PowerPoint features like automatic generation of slides from outlines, structured knowledge constructs like tables, graphs, and charts support knowledge organization and communication. Although most PowerPoint features have been available since the early days of Mac software such as MORE and Cricket Graph, it is the ubiquity of PowerPoint that created a backlash against the uniformity it imposes on thinking, organizing , sharing of knowledge concepts. In his essay The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Edward Tufte argues that PowerPoint templates weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and corrupt statistical analysis by analyzing the NASA briefings preceding the Columbia disaster.

In the government space we serve, the situation is not different. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, PowerPoint has become an ingrained part of the defense culture. For instance, PowerPoint Ranger is now a derogatory term used for a military professional who excels in slidemaking than warfighting. In fact, Margaret Hayes at the National Defense University posits that "You can't speak with the U.S. military without knowing PowerPoint." In the Armed Forces Journal essay, Dumb-dumb Bullets, T. X. Hammes goes further to argue that PowerPoint is "actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making", and has "decreased the quality of the information provided to the decision-maker".

From a cognition perspective, would you ask a first grader to build a PowerPoint presentation to see their grasp of a concept? No. Luckily for us, thanks to the pioneering work of Joseph D. Novak at Cornell and others, there is something that educators are using for such assignments in K-12 and higher education: Concept Maps. A concept map is a graphical network diagram where each node represents a concept, and the labelled links depicts the relationships between concepts. Here is a concept map that describes what a concept map is.

CMap of Concept Maps.tiff

What is special about this representation? The teacher sees the limitation of the student's understanding, and multiple students can collaboratively build a concept map for shared understanding. Is that possible in PowerPoint? No. It is simply not possible to assess an author's level of understanding of the subject domain from a PowerPoint deck as lack of communication skills often masks the knowledge gaps in the underlying domain.

As articulated by Joseph D. Novak, meaningful learning involves the assimilation of new concepts and propositions into existing cognitive structures. What this means that the viewer needs to first identify her/his known cognitive map of the presented concept and then detect the additions to this concept map for true learning. In other words, the viewer of a presentation always tries to find the answers to the following questions:

  • What do I already know in the presented topic?
  • What are the additional knowledge chunks that complement what I already know?
  • Can I trust the presented addition to my knowledge base?

On answering these questions, concept maps trump PowerPoint presentations, which explains their popularity in learning environments. Concept mapping is not a religion espoused by some education crusaders as the effectiveness of concept maps has been studied empirically. In an experiment conducted at the Naval Postgraduate School, Concept Maps were empirically demonstrated to be more effective than PowerPoint on key measures of knowledge transfer and rapidity in creation. In an anonymous survey at the American University in Cairo, a majority of students stated that doing concept maps required them to look at the assigned reading in more depth. A study conducted at a nursing school in Bangkok, Thailand showed that concept mapping is effective in assisting nursing students to summarize their own concepts and improve their nursing core competency in primary medical care.

There are other advantages of using Concept Maps in presentations. Jim Benson in his blog post makes the interesting point that concept maps create a continuous conversational flow with no breaks while noting that PowerPoint creates an unhealthy distraction of "What's coming next?". Steven Kaminski writes that most business PowerPoint presentations, with a little extra work, would be better—even much better—without it because the speaker becomes an audio aid for the PowerPoint slides instead of the presentation being a visual aid for the speaker, which is the case for concept maps.

In addition to several commercial software packages, there are several open source concept mapping tools. The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) project at Tufts, and CMap Tools at the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) have large active community of users. We don't have to wait until Concept Maps become a part of the Microsoft Office suite to start using them. Do we?