Visual Thinking, Branching Scenarios, and Mind Mapping

What’s the best way to demonstrate the relationship among concepts, key terms, events, significant characters, themes, and other pieces of course content?

Visual representations of your topic can really help students see which items work together and which items are in tension with one another. The tools outlined in this post tilt a little more toward the concept-mapping and diagramming end of things, although they certainly could be used to illustrate digital story elements like branching scenarios and diminishing choices.

I’ve covered a few products below, and Chris Clark at the University of Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning offers a nice discussion of the myriad ways to use graphic organizers and mind maps.

Lucidchart is more of a whiteboard diagramming tool, but it supports Venn diagrams, flowcharts, and site maps, and org charts. Templates (including those for software, network, and systems design), objects, shapes and fonts are provided; you can also upload your own photos and embed documents. LucidChart offers free educational licenses (equivalent to the Team-level premium option in terms of features).

LucidChart is a pretty powerful collaborative option. With this tool, all content is created online and stored in the cloud. This certainly makes collaboration easier, whether your students are working together to build a scenario or whether you are working with colleagues to connect content from various disciplines. All changes appear in real-time and there is no limit to the number of users who can collaborate on a document; conveniently, there is an embedded group chat feature. Revision history is also available. When your work is complete, you can publish to the web or PDF.

Below is a brief Lucidchart demo:

Creately is similar to Lucidchart in that it is also a mapping whiteboard with a variety of export/import, template, and privacy options. Creately also offers desktop software that you can use on your computer if you happen to be offline; the next time you connect to the internet, the software will automatically sync with your content in the cloud. Alas, Creately isn’t free: the cloud-based version costs $5 per month for a single user and $25 for up to 5 users, though the price is reduced for charity or open-source projects. The desktop software bills separately.

Below is a brief Creately demo:

Spicynodes is another diagramming / concept map tool. The emphasis here is more on organization and brevity, quickly displaying relevant information so that a reader scanning the content can locate exactly what she needs. I like that you can integrate images, links, videos, and audio files. Spicynodes also has previous / next arrows in several foreign languages. Alas, it is flash-based, so you’ll want to think about that and device compatibility, depending on how / when you will use spicynodes; Spicynodes is primarily designed to be published online, on a website or blog. The free version allows you to create an unlimited number of node maps, although some of the nice features (in terms of design, privacy controls, and collaboration) are reserved for the paid subscriptions. As other reviewers have noted, the American Association of School Librarians selected SpicyNodes as one of its 2011 Best Websites for Teaching and Learning.

Here is a sample spicynode (click on the image to be taken to a new page where you can experience the interactive features).

sample spicynode image showing center topic question and related questions

Last, we’ve talked about Prezi before on this blog, but Prezi is also a great tool for allowing learners some choice in how they relate pieces of content to each other. Focusing the branching scenarios and content clusters around topics, themes, characters, situations, diagnoses, etc. lets students actively engage with course content. Here is an example from Ian Beatty showing how a prezi concept map can help introduce students to key course concepts (this was published on Derek Bruff’s blog).


Better yet, Derek’s blog post includes examples of how concept maps can be used at the beginning, middle, and end of a course. This really does seem like great way to share a road map for the course, transition between topics, or synthesize knowledge at the conclusion of the class.

Do you have a favorite digital visualization tool? Or favorite way to use such tools in your course? We’d love to hear about it!

Twitter in the Classroom

We’ve written about Twitter before, including some great getting-started resources. If you’d like to learn more about Twitter or read about some different academic uses for Twitter, our past posts on Twitter are a great place to start.

I had a bit of internet serendipity this morning when two blog posts discussing Twitter popped up right next each other in my RSS reader. After reading them, I started thinking about how easy it would be integrate the ideas in both posts to create really wonderful – and wonderfully archived – learning experiences. Continue reading

Xtranormal is Ending

We’ve discussed the animation-creation website Xtranormal a few times. Now it looks like Xtranormal will be no more (at least not in the way it was). Xtranormal, we hardly knew ye. Where else will we get our snarky videos about awkward social situations?

You have until July 31st to complete any Xtranormal projects and download all your content.

Go!Animate is a reasonable alternative; you might also consult this list of Five Innovative Animation Tools.

Animations remain a great way to introduce a topic, start a discussion based on a model scenario, or highlight other applications of course content. You or your students can easily create animations. Generally, one begins by selecting, creating, or uploading avatars and backgrounds; then typing in the text the avatars will speak; and last adding other effects (music, captions, links, etc.).

Cool Tools (On the TCU Campus)

If you’re here at TCU, I recommend checking out the monthly brown bag sessions offered by the TCU New Media Writing Studio on free digital tools. I attended the first one of these last week; you can find upcoming dates listed on the New Media Writing Studio workshop schedule.

In the hour-long session, three presenters shared how they each use a different tool to improve their teaching and research. Discussion was informal, with plenty of time for questions, clarification, and examples.

The tools covered were:

Join.me: A simple, quick screen-sharing tool. The individual sharing his/her screen downloads some basic free software, while viewers need only navigate to the join.me webpage and enter a designated nine-digit code to see the shared screen. Clearly useful when viewers are not in the same physical location, this tool also has broad applicability for face-to-face classes. For example, the instructor or student presenter can bypass plugging a personal machine or thumb drive into the projector by navigating to join.me on the classroom computer’s web browser, entering the code, and then projecting the shared screen – progression through the presentation or other content is actually controlled from a personal laptop or tablet elsewhere in the classroom. The ability to manipulate content on the classroom projector while not standing at the podium allows for greater flexibility regarding how classroom space can be used: students and the instructor can sit together in a circle or around a seminar table. Likewise, students who bring their own devices to class can enter the designated screen sharing code and then view the speaker’s content on their own screens – no need to face the front of the classroom at all! Last, screen sharing, instead of directly attempting to load files on the classroom computer, can also help to avoid version or software compatibility issues that might arise from attempting to open content created on a different machine.

Diigo: A link aggregating and organizing tool, complete with sharing and social networking features.  In order to use Diigo, you place a small toolbar on your browser, and then save and tag websites that catch your eye. You also have the ability to share your links with groups you create or preexisting Diigo groups you can join. Likewise, you can see other links saved by individuals who also saved your initial link, allowing you to perhaps discover relevant, related content. The ability to search your links by tag (or keyword) is what makes Diigo so versatile; a saved bookmark can generally exist in only one folder, but a given Diigo link can have multiple tags. You can then search your all your links for a specific tag or search all user-saved Diigo links for a specific tag. Additionally, since your Diigo bookmarks live in the cloud, they are available to you no matter your location or device. Basic Diigo membership is free and comes with unlimited bookmarking and some advertising; upgraded plans with no advertising and increased highlighting, note-taking, and searching powers cost $20-$40 per year (note that there are also educator upgrades available).

PBworks: We’ve written about wikis on this blog already, but a good tool bears repeating! PbWorks is a wiki hosting service that allows you to create a free, basic wiki for educational / non-commercial use. Wikis are great tools for organizing your teaching and professional materials. Instead of collecting items in folders or sub-folders by class or year, you can put up a wiki page with your notes or upload and link to relevant files. A wiki organized topically like this means that if you cover the same topic in multiple courses over a period of years, there’s no need to go hunting for content – it’s all linked together, based on relationships you establish among the files and wiki pages. Likewise, as you gather materials for research or professional projects of your own, a wiki can help you store and organize files, web links, and your own typed notes. While the wiki grows over time, you never need to worry about losing your notes or files, as these are no longer stored on your local machine; you can access your files from home, work, or using your mobile / tablet device. Complete with tagging features, the ability to search the contents of the entire wiki, and privacy controls (including allowing comments and sharing editing rights), wikis have some real advantages over simply storing files or taking notes on your local machine.

If cool tools like this have piqued your interest, you might be interested in the multimedia and teaching tools collected by the Koehler Center team. We’ve broken these tools down into audio, video, collaboration, digital storytelling, graphics, presentations and slidecasts, social networking, mobile and tablet apps, and an exciting grab bag of other web 2.0 tools (maps, calculators, study aids, etc.) that defy neat classification. You’re sure to find something interesting!

Mapping Tools

Where in the world are we? A handful of great digital mapping resources have come to my attention lately. In addition to geography courses, these websites would fit nicely in history, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, foreign language, and even literature courses; maps are also a wonderful addition to digital storytelling projects.

First, a few specific resources:

If the ancient world is your thing, ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World would be a wonderful classroom addition. Like a travel site for ancient world, users can select their departure point and destination, the time of year travel is to take place, their method of travel, and their goal (speed or cost savings). The site then maps a route. No better way to bring home how ideas, people, and commerce might – and might not – spread. (Thanks to Chris Clark at Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center for tipping me off to this resource.)

There are two great interactive projects related to slavery in the United States. First, National Geographic has a great digital branching story about the Underground Railroad. In this simulation, users make choices and receive feedback as they attempt to journey from Maryland to Canada. Though plenty of historical images and rich descriptions accompany each step, there are no useable map images.

The above site, however, would pair nicely with Visualizing Emancipation, a project from the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond (funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities). Visualizing Emancipation specifically focuses on the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War; data was gathered from a detailed study of primary documents including runaway slave notices, articles about returned slaves, troop locations, seasonal patterns, and instances of African-Americans helping the Union. For another review, you can consult the article in Chronicle of Higher Education about the project.

And now some more general digital mapping resources:

The United Nations Cartographic Section has a great list of regional political maps (all in an easy to use and re-use PDF format), maps about current peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions, and a small selection of institutional, historical, and regional maps. If you’d like a map of the Okavango River basin, they’ve got it. For more extensive geopolitical maps and facts,the CIA World Factbook is a great resource; this site even supports country-to-country comparisons, audio files of national anthems, and includes detailed information about each country.

I’d be remiss not to direct to you one of the finest digital map archives online, the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas. Like the UN site, they have maps related to current events, but their collection also includes general interest maps, historical maps, and fully digitized versions of several historical atlases.

For a more interactive map experience, check out the University of Oregon’s Mapping History Project. Broken down by region and time period, these maps allow you to move a slider along the bottom of the map to illustrate the chronological progression of political, social, economic, and intellectual events. Sadly, they seem to be missing a section on Asia.

Last, to round out this survey of mapping resources, here’s a great little animation reviewing how astronomers learned to measure celestial distances.

If you’ve got a great digital map resource, please share it with us in the comments section.

Digital Storytelling & Twine

This post presents some resources for creating and sharing narratives online. Digital storytelling can help your students build relationships with one another, brainstorm their ideas, think through realistic scenarios, share their learning, and reflect on course content.
Teaching through stories is powerful; the addition of images and the ability experience how concepts relate to one another helps students with different skill levels and learning styles. If you’re looking for a little more background, this is a well-researched synthesis piece on the pedagogy of storytelling and the benefits of digital storytelling.

Here is an example of a simple scenario built by corporate eLearning instructional designer Cathy Moore that plunges learners right into the thick of things, learning and reviewing new vocabulary in service of moving the storyline along. Give it a try, and see how much you learn – and how motivated you are to get it right!

The example above is a language-learning example, however digital storytelling examples in higher education abound across the disciplines: business, landscape design, nursing, religion, etc.

As Cathy Moore notes, “. . . we don’t have to front-load learners’ brains with vocabulary, or other facts before the ‘practice activity’. Instead, we can plunge them, clueless, directly into an activity that exposes them to the new information in a way that helps them figure it out . . . . Design the story so the learners can discover meanings on their own. Then provide a natural pause to review what they’ve learned and make sure they got it right.”  Having your students actively do something is a far more powerful route to content retention and learner engagement than, say, having them take notes on a summary lecture.

The choices you make as the designer of the learning experience matter. How much information will you reveal at once? Will you use narrative, key words, questions, or images to guide learners through the content? How will learners know what they are to do? How much prior knowledge are you assuming they will have (and how do you know this is an accurate assumption)? How will your learners know when they’ve met the learning objectives? Sorting out the answers to these questions will help you select the proper tool (of course, we’re always available to help, too!).

If you’re not quite ready to dive in to the deep end with designing your own scenario, you can start more gradually. Digital Play, a blog focused on digital resources and games for language learning, recently published a guest post by James Taylor with a wonderful breakdown of the levels of digital storytelling. Taylor identifies the levels as:

  • Mad libs
  • Photo stories
  • Comic strips
  • Story books
  • Animated films

The blog gives a pithy summary for each level and then provides some relevant resources. You can produce these items for your students to experience, or, depending on the skills of your learners, they might produce these items for each other as a learning exercise. Note that each step increases both the complexity of the content the learner is required to produce (words versus phrases and stories) and the complexity of the learning environment (filling the blanks to matching content with photos to using / viewing animation websites). Your learners gain autonomy with each level.

Should you wish to build interactive scenarios, Twine is one tool you can use. Twine is a free downloadable Mac/Windows program (the sample digital story above was created using Twine).  Here’s a summary of the tool from their website:

Twine lets you organize your story graphically with a map that you can re-arrange as you work. Links automatically appear on the map as you add them to your passages, and passages with broken links are apparent at a glance. As you write, focus on your text with a fullscreen editing mode . . . . Rapidly switch between a published version of your story and the editable one as you work . . . . the final output is a single, small Web page, you can easily email a story to friends, post it on your Web site, or even distribute it on a CD-ROM . . . . Twine is free to download and use, and you can share it with anyone you like. You can even modify the Twine, provided you release your own version under the GNU Public License.

You’re also able to add images and audio. As one reviewer notes, “Since Twine produces a standard web page, you could conceivably embed a Twine story in any elearning tool that lets you embed web pages and that doesn’t interfere with Javascript. It might also be mobile-friendly — at least, the sample scenario works on my iPhone.”

Here is a screencast showing the creation of a simple, nonlinear story in Twine (with the bonus of a little discussion about nonlinear stories – information that might help you structure your own digital story).

Creating A Simple Story from Chris Klimas on Vimeo.

Do you use any digital storytelling techniques in your courses? Tell us about it in the comments!