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!

Mixing it up

This is a post from the Pearson blog about providing different types of feedback to your students. However, the real gems of the post are the three different tools they review:

1. VoiceThread – Touting itself as “conversations in the cloud”, VoiceThread offers a way for you and your students to communicate about a slideshow; your slideshow can include video and audio files, documents, spreadsheets, and web content. There is no software to install, and the program accepts comments via voice, text, and audio and video files. Pearson suggests this like “your discussion board on steroids”. The cost is $99/year for 1 instructor and 50 student accounts, with departmental pricing also available.

2. xtimeline – Timelines are great ways to relate the causes and effects of various events, evaluate parallel events, and organize information. xtimeline is a free, web-based timeline program that allows the author to create a timeline on any subject. Images can be imported from the web and text can be written by the author or added from online sources. Multiple students can work together on one timeline and embed code is provided, so timelines can be added directly to your course shell.

3. Mind42 – Representing clusters of ideas and inter-related concepts can be tricky – even more so online and collaboratively. Mind42 offers a web-based visual thinking application; data is stored in the cloud. There are many different style and color options to allow for the customization of different nodes and their relationships. There’s also a publish option that provides a read-only view, complete with embed code. The free option has a limit of 5 maps per user at any given time.

If you are using any these – or end up trying one – we’d love to hear about it!