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Managing critical knowledge in higher education

This article appears in the issue May 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 5]
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Through their research and teaching activities, academic institutes are at the forefront of knowledge creation and dissemination. Nevertheless, they have not necessarily been early adopters of knowledge management solutions. In order to manage a rapidly expanding base of knowledge and work more efficiently, however, professors are turning to software solutions to help organize and present information.

At the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Ron Sakaguchi, associate dean for research and innovation, began exploring mind mapping when a consultant in creativity and innovation introduced him to the concept. OHSU is a leading health education and research institution in Oregon, and is committed to bringing healthcare innovation into practical application. Sakaguchi saw the potential for mind maps to support that mission by helping to focus learners’ attention on critical knowledge.

Mind maps are visual representations of ideas and the relationships among them. Mind maps are not new; ancient philosophers used them to classify and portray categorical knowledge. Paper-based mind maps are widely used today, and many courses are offered to explain the technique of mind mapping. What is relatively new is the array of software programs developed over the past decade to offer the added advantages of expanding the volume of information that is readily accessible, and making modification of the maps much easier.

Once Sakaguchi became aware of mind mapping and its potential for OHSU, he began looking into the software products designed for that purpose. After reviewing products on the market, he chose MindManager from Mindjet, which has been selling its visualization software product for over a decade. MindManager is designed to present an overview of a topic on a single page, with links to related information that may be on a Web site or contained in an electronic file such as a document, spreadsheet or image.

In his role as associate dean for research and innovation, Sakaguchi is responsible for surveying new technology for use by faculty, so he offered a series of sessions in which faculty could learn the concepts and operation of MindManager. He is also a professor of biomaterials and biomechanics in the School of Dentistry. His initial use of MindManager in that context was to summarize the content of his lectures.

"I wanted to reduce the amount of note-taking the students had to do," Sakaguchi says, "and to reduce the amount of paper we were distributing in handouts."

Each lecture consists of a one-page mind map summary of major concepts, and supporting PowerPoint slides and scientific references. Students attended workshops in class to learn how to work with MindManager.

"The reaction was very positive," Sakaguchi says. "Students commented that the maps were a powerful learning tool, and helpful in understanding and organizing the class material." Each lecture is summarized in a one-page view, and twice during each term, he consolidates the mind maps and creates a summary of the previous lectures.

In addition to the academic benefits, Sakaguchi achieved his goal of cutting down on printing and paper. "The printing costs had been about $10,000 per term just for the freshman class," he says, "and we were able to cut down to a fraction of that amount."

Those figures are based on estimates of the number of pages produced for each lecture and the number of students in the freshman class. Sakaguchi expects that as more teachers adopt the use of MindManager, the impact on resources and sustainability will improve correspondingly.

Students also have become active developers of mind maps in MindManager. "Two students organized a body of knowledge on one national board topic using MindManager, and made it available for other students to use as a study guide," Sakaguchi says. "The map was very comprehensive and demonstrated the power and flexibility of MindManager."

Mind maps promote reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking by presenting information in a comprehensive format and demonstrating relationships, according to Sakaguchi. A grant he received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is aimed at infusing the School of Dentistry with critical thinking and research skills. "We are developing training for students and faculty, and creating research opportunities to influence the culture of scientific reasoning," he explains. See Figure 1. This mind map image is one included in a successful grant application to change the culture of research at Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry.

"As we developed the material for this grant," Sakaguchi continues, "we mapped it and put the segments into the application. Our feedback from the reviewers was that having what they called a ‘roadmap’ was very useful." The top level showed goals and specific aims, and the remainder of the map displayed different levels of information on the branches. "The bottom line was that the grant was funded on our first try, which is somewhat unique," he says.

In addition to using MindManager to present lecture material and in grants applications, Sakaguchi has used the technology for planning other major projects and developing strategic plans. And at a time when innovation is at a premium, MindManager offers an opportunity to expedite the process and improve productivity.

Sakaguchi explains, "Students and faculty alike are faced with a tremendous amount of information, and they, along with their future patients, will benefit if they know what is most critical to learn, and understand the interactions between pieces of information. Being able to organize complex information in a format that makes it easy to assimilate is a great asset."

MindManager is integrated with standard office productivity tools such as Microsoft Office, Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

"We are living in an age in which people need to structure their information," says Jahmanz Williams, education sales representative at Mindjet. "In addition to being useful in the classroom, MindManager is used by many doctoral candidates as they work on their theses, to link to Web sites and other relevant information such as text documents. This solution helps them stay on task."

In addition to its desktop product, Mindjet offers MindManager Connect, which is an online version of the product that supports collaborative activities.

Academic content

When universities launch enterprise content management (ECM) systems, the effort is more often directed at the administrative side than at teaching or research.

"We see growth in areas such as managing student applications and enrollment documentation, as well as the move toward content management strategies that focus on outcomes, assessment and accreditation reporting requirements," says Marti Harris, research director for higher education technology strategy at Gartner. At some universities, though, the use of ECM for managing academic content has also begun to take root.

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