Cmaps and the “Split Attention Effect”

A big benefit of Concept Maps is that similar concepts are spatially close to each other — even those that are not explicitly connected by lines, become coherent by the gestalt principles. But what if you need more text to explain your ideas, such that the closeness gets lost? As Stephen Downes recently observed about concept maps:

“they’re the sort of thing that I think has never really made the transition to digital media. I think they just need bigger screens.”

It is hard to swallow that despite all the urge for digitalization, exactly this tool is left behind which might so optimally support networked thinking.

It seems that instructional designers traditionally shy at the “Split Attention Effect” that was described in 1992 by Chandler and Sweller. Which says that the cognitive load is increased if an annotation is not immediately next to the item it refers to.

I wonder if this is still as true as it was 1992 in a paper world, where the annotations had to be found somewhere in the linear text. Today, it is possible to catch annotations with an eye saccade movement if it appears always at the same location — such as the preview pane in the “coordinated views” technique used by ordinary email clients.

An eye saccade works extremely fast and effortless because the jump is ballistic (like a missile), i.e. the target fixation is determined at the start and it cannot be changed later (I learned this from S. P. Ballstaedt, on p. 20 of his German lecture notes).

In my experience, this works much better than a popup annotation which is commonly used as the digital equivalent of the callouts bubble in a diagram of the paper era.

Now this is the effect that is the basis of my own think tool — so I would love to hear your feedback!

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