Software Review #3: VUE (Visual Understanding Environment)

Brief Description: VUE is a concept mapping program designed by a team at Tufts University. The program is designed to be a flexible learning environment which can manage text, links, images, and other multimedia files. The program also functions as a nonlinear presentation tool.

Strengths:

  • A strong, university-based design team leads the development of VUE. A clear set of design principles guides its development. Development should continue steadily for the foreseeable future, and may be picked up by the OS community.
  • VUE is cross-platform.
  • VUE is inclusive of many types of media. It is designed to organize resources from a variety of repositories – the user’s file system, the Fedora repository, and other digital archives.
  • A growing community exists around the VUE project, which is building a library of concept maps which can be downloaded.
  • As with any software designed for flexible use, there is a learning curve in using the software to its full potential. From initial use, however, the program seems to pull you in to deeper functionality. Thus, the learning curve weakness becomes a strength.

Weaknesses:

  • Any potential weaknesses I can identify so far, such as the inability to upload directly to the web, are being addressed in the next release. It is clear that this work is being actively pursued.

Resources: VUE web site, Sourceforge page

Specifications: Platform independent; requires a java runtime environment.

Installation: VUE installed easily on Ubuntu. I downloaded the Linux Installer file. I unzipped the file, changed its permission to executable, and ran the installer. It gave an error message after installing, but seems to be running fine.

Summary

I wanted to take a look at an example of concept-mapping software. I have used concept maps in my teaching, but have never used digital versions. They have always seemed cumbersome to create, relative to the educational value in creating them. The majority of conceptual learning seemed to occur while creating drafts of their concept maps, after which translating them to an electronic version was simply a technical task. The VUE designers seemed to feel the same way about existing concept-mapping software:

[existing concept-mapping programs] lack both the flexibility and responsiveness required to support critical and creative thinking with digital resources (Kahle, 2003). These tools’ simple mode of presenting digital resources as a static selection of links organized hierarchically may serve to communicate the structure of a course of lecture at a very high level, but this approach does not support the type of meaningful exploration and content manipulation necessary to help students construct important connections between digital resources and the ideas they represent. (Kumar 2006, chap. 1)

In about fifteen minutes, I was able to make a simple map including nodes, links, and labels for each. I then ‘played’ the map as a presentation and discovered the richness of VUE as a presentation tool. The first screen in the presentation is the map as a whole. Clicking on any node enlarges the node. If the node has any links, these other nodes and resources can be reached directly from the presentation, or the user can return to the previous level. This allows, or requires, the user to think through their presentation rather than simply following a default linear progression as often happens in the use of other presentation software. If the user wants to define a presentation order, I believe a pathway can be used to accomplish this. Being fairly new to concept mapping software in general, I was quite satisfied to be able to do this easily. I also recognize that this only begins to scratch the surface of VUE’s functionality.

Map creation window, with many dialog windows open.

Map creation window, with many dialog windows open.

VUE allows users to “search, browse, retrieve content from digital repositories, and upload resources into these systems” (Kumar 2006, chap. 3). Users can also create pathways through the resources on a map. These pathways can be used to control the sequence in which resources and content are viewed, and to control the level of complexity displayed on the map. For users new to the content area, pathways can be used to show only the core content information. For users familiar with the content area, the full richness of the map can be displayed. Multiple pathways within the same map can be used in different ways, by different learners. This flexibility can allow the map to develop in complexity with the user’s growing understanding of the topic. The user can also add new content and resources to the map as they bring their own learning to an existing map, or continue to develop a map they have created. Users can add to the map by searching their own file system, the Fedora repository, and other digital repositories for content. When relevant content is found, it can be dragged directly onto the map to create a new node.

Simple, 15-minute OS Education Concept Map.  Links to an image of Richard Stallman, and the text of the GNU Manifesto.

Simple, 15-minute OS Education Concept Map. Links to an image of Richard Stallman, and the text of the GNU Manifesto.

The current version of VUE is 2.2, and version 3.0 is planned for the fall of 2009. Version 3.0 will implement layers to further facilitate complex map structures. Importing data will be automated from certain sources, and layout will be automated using rules-based styling. A VUE applet is also being developed which will allow the full functioning of maps posted to web sites (Tufts University, 2008).

Conclusion

VUE is a strong example of what a contemporary OS project can look like. With its open design process, clear communication between users and developers, modular design model, and university backing, it is clear that the project will be active in the foreseeable future, and will continue to gain functionality. The project should continue to push the standards of concept mapping software development. It is difficult to imagine using a program like PowerPoint after seeing the flexibility of a program like VUE.

I would like to learn more about the OKI standards that are mentioned in discussions of development, and the OSID implementations that are mentioned (Kumar 2006). Conforming to these standards seem to allow the program to access certain repositories, and allow other developers to build on VUE functionality in their own projects.

References

Kumar, A., Kahle, D. (2006). VUE: A Concept Mapping Tool For Digital Content. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Concept Mapping. Retrieved February 27, 2009 from cmc.ihmc.us/cmc2006Papers/cmc2006-p84.pdf

Tufts University. (May 2008). Visual Understanding Environment 3.0 (VUE 3.0). Retrieved February 27, 2009 from rit.mellon.org/projects/VisualUnderstandingEnvironment.pdf

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9 Responses to “Software Review #3: VUE (Visual Understanding Environment)”

  1. Skip Says:

    This is fascinating. I’m downloading the program as I write this.

    In the UAF School of Education, I have long promoted a program called Inspiration, a proprietary cross-platform application that was one of the early concept mapping tools available on any platform. It has evolved into the de facto K-12 application for concept mapping, outlining, brainstorming, flow charting, etc. for K-12 and even though it’s clearly oriented toward K-12 it’s a very capable tool for professionals as well. (You may recall a few years ago that Arthur Golden published some of his character maps and plot outlines for Memoirs of a Geisha in their native Inspiration form.) Inspiration is now required software for all SOE students.

    I use Inspiration extensively (and in preference to PowerPoint and its ilk) for presentations or exactly the reasons you allude to (non-linearity and linking ability in particular), but there are some annoying limitations. It sounds from your review like VUE may have solved some of those problems. I’m anxious to test it out. It sounds as if it may be too difficult for elementary students (we’ll see) but it may be a viable replacement for Inspiration for older students and it certainly has potential use as a professional tool.

    Sometimes I wonder who is learning more from this project–you or me.

  2. Skip Says:

    I’ve just spent a delightful hour learning VUE. Wow. It’s what PowerPoint should have always been, and the brainstorming tools are excellent. I’m very excited about starting to use this tool in my classes. Pathways…who knew?

  3. japhyr Says:

    Do the pathways address the limitations you referred to in your first post? If so, do they address all the limitations you were thinking of, or just some? As a more experienced user of concept mapping software, I’d be curious to hear what weaknesses you do see in the program.

    I’m happy to hear you are learning from this as well.

  4. Skip Says:

    I prefer Inspiration to PowerPoint because of the potential of working in a non-linear way through a presentation, revisiting some parts of a presentation or skipping other parts depending on your audience. One annoyance is Inspiration’s inability to group topics (“nodes” in VUE) into a single node. For complex topics, you’d end up with lots of nodes crammed into a small space. I like VUE’s ability to compress nodes, although I wish that there were a way in VUE to click a single toggle to expand and collapse stacked nodes.

    Another major annoyance–in Inspiration, you can link between several Inspiration documents so that you can avoid having too many nodes on a screen, but linking this way is still very linear. To return to the original screen, you need to make a specific link back to the original document–you can visit other documents, but you have to return the same way you got there. With VUE, it appears that you can create additional VUE documents and then link them through Pathways, giving you access to any of the documents at any time. I’m really looking forward to this, although it’s going to make me have to rethink how I construct presentations. (That’s always a good thing.)

    Pathways brings a whole new ability to concept mapping that never existed in Inspiration, so I guess I couldn’t claim that it was an annoyance, but I love the ability to jump into presentation mode at any point in your concept map, to move non-linearly through a pathway (or even into and out of other pathways), and to toggle the concept map and the presentation slides at any time.

  5. Scott Fraize Says:

    FYI, the ability to collapse and re-expand nodes is a feature under development and will be in the next major release of VUE.

  6. Skip Says:

    Thanks, Scott. That will make VUE presentations much more manageable.

    Any chance that VUE might export topics to an outline format at some point? This is a very useful feature of Inspiration.

  7. Mike Says:

    Skip,

    You can do File->export Node notes outline, and get the output in a PDF. If this is doing something other then what you’d expect let us know.

  8. Skip Says:

    That’s an excellent feature that I discovered after my initial comment. For what it’s worth, I’d love to have the option to export as text as well, for inclusion in text documents.

    I’m enjoying VUE very much.

  9. Sweta Says:

    Hi, I’m a student at Tufts and am finding Vue enormously helpful to create program models for international development projects. Quick question to those who may know–how does one wrap the text in a node, without having to hit return manually to break up a long line into several lines?

    Swetha

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