Mind Mapping: Visual Outlines & Word Clouds

Mind mapping is one of those things where I don’t recognize the term but I recognize it when I see it. I’ve never used any mind mapping software—Inspiration, XMind, MindMeister, FreeMind—but I have engaged with the general principles of mind mapping: mapping out ideas in a more creative, non-linear, and highly visual way. Essentially, mind mapping is a graphic organizer that allows us to visually assess our ideas: analyzing and understanding old ideas while inventing and generating new ones.

Mind mapping can be useful for a number of writing projects: from dissertation outlining to brainstorming ideas for a paper to project management. The articles I found seem to associate software like Inspiration to primary and secondary school settings, and I would be worried about asking college students to use “kid” software. However, mind mapping offers such great opportunities for writing students—visual learners, students who struggle to organize their main points or connect their thoughts, even students who just need to see their writing from a fresh perspective—that I think it’s worthwhile to find some options that may be more suitable for older audiences.

At first glance, Bubbl.us seems like a pretty fast and easy way to create clean mind maps. You can create pretty complex maps just by using two controls: “Command  + Enter” and “Tab” to create parent and child bubbles. Also, you can physically rearrange bubbles, change the font sizes and colors, adjust the box colors, and draw connections to various boxes. If you want to save or share your mind map, you just create an account. I played around with it a little bit and created a mind map of what I thought were the main points from my reading response for this week:

Bubbl.us Outline

Visual representation of my last reading response via Bubbl.us

Another fun resource is Worlde. I’ve seen lots of writing folk use applications like Worlde to create word clouds that indicate how frequently particular words appear in a text. This could be particularly useful for revision purposes. Once a student has written an essay or brief paper, they could import that paper into Worlde and visually see which ideas are most prominent. This visual representation allows us to see which words/concepts are privileged and which concepts may not be receiving as much attention is intended. In terms of sentence-level revision, a word cloud also allows students to see what words they depend on most (Wordle does have the option to remove common words like “the” and “a,” but it can highlight how frequently you use a word like “therefore”). The following word cloud is my last reading response, minus the references:

Word Cloud of Blog Post

Word cloud of last reading response via Wordle.net

The word cloud shows that I was emphasizing people and actions rather than (what I thought was) the major concepts from the readings: providing accessible and equitable environments. The word cloud becomes even more interesting when compared to the Bubbl.us graphic: contrasting what I think my response is about vs. what it is actually about. Also, Taxgedo seems like a pretty snazzy word cloud generator, but it was a bit too glitzy for my purposes.

So what does this mean for teaching and for our students?

Mind mapping seems like a valuable tool for any stage of the writing process: getting students to think about brainstorming, unconventional forms of outlining, and revising. I love asking students to do reverse outlines because it’s an activity that gets gears turning about what is actually written, but it’s difficult to get students to look critically at their own work. If they use a graphic organizer that represents that work visually, students have a clearer picture of that work.

It seems like mind mapping could work for a variety of students. Visual learners could certainly benefit from something like this, as could students with pragmatic impairments who may struggle connecting thoughts and expressing ideas through clearly sentences. According to an article from ADDitude Magazine, mind mapping is useful as a generative and organizing tool for students with ADHD and LD. However, something this visual wouldn’t work for students who are blind or who have low vision. And though I didn’t discuss this, I was thinking of Prezi as a graphic organizer similar to mind mapping: It’s a zooming presentation that moves from point to point in non-linear, iterative processes based on spatial relationships. While this makes a presentation more interactive, if the images and points zip back and forth too quickly, students may lose attention and some may even feel negative physical side effects. I know I’ve sat through Prezi presentations that make me feel sick to my stomach!

Mind mapping wasn’t on my radar before, but I’m excited to show students alternative outlines and to potentially use one of these programs for a revision workshop. Also, I may have to check it out for some of my own papers—I’m always an advocate of outlining, and it may be nice to get a new perspective on outlining! Here are some resources I found that tell a little more about mind mapping:

Dunn, Jeff. “5 Innovative Mind-Mapping Tools for Education.” Edudemic. Edudemic. 11 March 2012. Web.

Fitzpatrick, Jason. “Create Polished Mind Maps at Bubbl.us.” Lifehacker. 16 March 2010. Web.

Hara, Billie. “Mindmapping Software Programs.” Profhacker: Teaching, Technology, and Productivity. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 16 Nov. 2009. Web.

Sandler, Michael. “How ADHD Students Use Mind Mapping Tools at School.” ADDitude. New Hope Media. Feb/March 2006. Web.


Technology Lab 3: Online Portfolios

Online surveys could serve some interesting roles in the composition classroom: they could be used to check homework progress or to administer informal, yet anonymous, “quizzes” to initiate discussions about assigned reading. They would be particularly valuable tools for giving students a voice in the classroom—allowing both me and their peers to see what everyone likes about the class, how they would like to see the class progress, what they would like to see changed, etc.

And while I think these are valuable functions, I’m not super attached to online surveys. Inspired by this article about using Google Sites for online portfolios, and recognizing that many comp. programs are portfolio-based, I decided to find out more information about online portfolios.

I’m pretty familiar with online portfolios. I’ve created them for my own professional purposes—which have involved building them in Adobe Dreamweaver. And I have used them to teach, but not often. I’ve had great results with Weebly because it’s easy to use, intuitive, and gives students a fair amount of design freedom without overwhelming them with too many options. I have also seen really great student portfolios made with WordPress and with Google Sites. All of these sites are also ideal places to host a class website—that way, students gain some experience using them (to locate assignments, readings, class policies) before they set up their own sites.

Online portfolios are really valuable in a writing classroom for a number of reasons:

  1. There is a (potentially) larger audience, which means students have more opportunities—and incentive—to spend time thinking about selection, visual rhetoric, and arrangement. This often means gaining a deeper understanding of the course goals—thinking critically, choosing words (and documents) carefully, considering the value of photos and videos, etc.
  2. Students gain practical experience composing and working with digital media, which is certainly valuable for entering the 21st-century workplace. If it’s a really nice portfolio, students could definitely link to it on a résumé.
  3. Online portfolios are often more engaging than print. There is more flexibility with what students can include and how they display that material. This flexibility could extend to providing instructors with a better sense of students’ learning and writing processes.
  4. They present a great opportunity to discuss web content accessibility standards and what factors students should consider when making their websites as accessible as possible.

There are certainly drawbacks to online portfolios, though, ranging from privacy to accessibility:

  1. There are material accessibility issues with using online portfolios. I rarely have access to a technology classroom, and not all of my students can bring laptops to class. If the group isn’t accustomed to the medium (or genre), it helps to be able to work on the portfolios together in a lab. I wouldn’t assign an online portfolio if everyone didn’t have the access to computers in class.
  2. There are privacy and legal issues that must be negotiated. Most websites allow you to choose whether or not your website can be found via search engines, and you can usually set your site to private, sharing the link with whomever needs to view it. 

    I didn’t know about the legal issues with using online portfolios before I went to a Google Sites presentation in my department at the beginning of the year. Students grades are not allowed to be posted outside institutionally-sanctioned spaces (e.g. Blackboard). This means you can’t share a student’s grade through email or through any other web site. Those rules would need to be clear so students knew not to post graded papers to showcase their learning/writing processes.

    Also, it’s important to talk to students about intellectual property, creative commons, fair use, etc. This becomes particularly prominent when students start including photos they find on the web (always use CC images!).

  3. And, keeping UD in mind, online portfolios cannot meet all students’ needs. An online portfolio cannot simply replace print as “better” for all students. No one would force a student with epilepsy triggered by staring at computer screens to create an online portfolio (I would hope). Some students, particularly tactile learners, may be more interested in creating a print portfolio that they can physically arrange. Low-vision or blind students could create online portfolios (assuming the class used an accessible web platform), but the student may prefer a portfolio option that wasn’t so dependent on visual design. And again, some students may not have the technological access to create a fully developed online portfolio.

Generally, I think online portfolios are a great option for a portfolio-based classroom. However, I hadn’t fully fleshed out some of their drawbacks, particularly in terms of privacy, IP, and disability. As with any assignment, an online portfolio should not be a 1:1 replacement of another, possibly more accessible, option that shares the same curricular goals.

These sites provided me with a greater understanding of the benefits, issues, and conversations surrounding online portfolios, both within composition and beyond:

“CCCC Position Statement: Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios.” CCCC: Conference on College Composition and Communication. National Council of Teachers of English. 19 Nov. 2007. Web.

“E-Portfolios.” EDUCAUSE: Learning Initiative. EDUCAUSE. 2012. Web.

Steele, Kristen. “What It Takes: Issues in Implementing Electronic Portfolios.” Independent Studies and Capstones. Paper 444. Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine. 2009. Web.

  • This is actually a public capstone project for this student’s M.S. in Deaf Education, and she points to a lot of key questions that we should ask ourselves about the benefits and potential drawbacks to using online portfolios.

Technology Lab 2: SMART Boards

I was a little anxious about this week’s technology topic. I’ve never used, or seen anyone use, a SMARTboard. They weren’t popular when I was in high school, and I had never seen anyone use one within a college setting. So I expected to learn a lot from the in-class presentation about their various functions. However, I still had reservations after the presentation. From the examples we covered in class, SMARTboards seemed to only apply to K-12 settings—elementary school in particular.

After some web searching, I found a collection of narratives from college faculty via SMART Technologies and a couple articles from The Chronicle of Higher Ed. In “‘Electronic Whiteboards’ Add Flexibility to Classrooms,” Young highlights the benefits of the “capture” feature. He writes, “The capture feature is a useful service for students, who can get exact copies of what was on the board after class, he says, and it can also help professors save a record of what went on in class so they can review their own teaching.” I could definitely see this as an advantage in a lecture-based classroom when a lot of information is written on the boards. Writing classrooms aren’t lecture-based, though, and I had a difficult time trying to relate different faculty narratives to my own classroom.

The author of “Do We Really Need SMART Boards to Teach Writing Well?” is a bit of a luddite, but I think the question is valid. I certainly believe in the value of technology to teach writing, but I’m not sure what the advantage of SMART Boards vs. another technology is—for example, a tablet PC. In fact, “11 Reasons Why a Tablet PC is Better” provides five reasons why a tablet PC + digital projector works better than a SMART board. Of particular interest are the abilities to transport it easily—to take home or to move from class to class—and to create video podcasts using PC software. For that matter, I think the same benefits could be said of the iPad, particularly with all of the apps you can download.

It wasn’t until I spoke with my partner, who is a community college writing teacher, that I began to see some really clear uses for the SMART board in a college writing context. Here are a few:

  • Interacting with databases. Because comp classes are meant to introduce students to college-level research, it’s crucial that students learn to navigate databases. Bringing up different databases and circling particular buttons/tabs would be helpful.
  • Outlining student papers. You could open a student paper and show students how to do an outline (or a reverse outline!) of that paper in the margins.
  • Identifying topic sentences. Particularly in intro comp courses, and in community college comp courses, it’s important to start with the basics, and any way to spice up a topic sentence lesson would be great.
  • Write sample theses. Thesis statements are so important for teaching good arguments, and it would be nice to have students interact with writing theses as a group.
  • Practicing critical reading. You could bring up different texts and have students identify the parts of the text that they think are most important.

I think the accessibility of SMART Boards has its ups and downs. Barring the issues we talked about in class, I think they could be very limiting for low-vision students. Like we saw in class, the image couldn’t get any larger than the projector, and it was fairly difficult to see some of the smaller images on the board. As the Tablet PC article explains, a tablet PC (or an iPad) used with a projector can make the images much, much larger. In terms of increasing accessibility, the interactive nature of SMART boards seems like it would be great for students who learn better with multiple modes and stimuli.

Though I’m not sure I would use a SMART board (nor do I think I am likely to teach in a place that uses them), I do think they would have some interesting benefits if you knew exactly how you wanted to use them. Like any technology, they don’t automatically improve class. If you have a set lesson plan, though, it seems like SMART Boards could provide more options within the classroom.


“11 Reasons Why a Tablet PC is Better.” The HP Blog Hub. Hewlett-Packard Development Company. 14 June 2009. Web.

“Customer Stories.” SMART Technologies. SMART Technologies. 2012. Web.

“Do We Really Need SMART Boards to Teach Writing Well?” Two Writing Teachers: Teaching Kids. Catching Minds. 565 Miles Apart. WordPress. 17 June 2010. Web.

Young, Jeffrey R. “‘Electronic Whiteboards’ Add Flexibility to Classrooms.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 Feb. 2002. Web.


Technology Lab 1: Google Docs

I’ve been using Google Docs for a few years now, and it’s been incredibly helpful this year with the conference planning I’ve been doing with other members of the CCR Grad Circle. To organize CARR 2012 (Conference on Activism, Rhetoric, and Research), we have used Google Docs to distribute and edit documents, create spreadsheets, and create forms.

  1. Distributing and editing documents. Our core committee uses Google Docs to distribute agendas for our meetings, which could then be used to take notes that everyone could see in real-time. We also use Google Docs to edit documents when we can’t meet face-to-face. Even if we are meeting in person, it comes in handy when a document requires feedback from the entire group because we can see exactly who is making changes or comments, and they are applied immediately, which saves someone the time and hassle of gathering all the comments and applying them individually.
  2. Creating spreadsheets. Planning a conference requires funding, and we have used the Google Docs spreadsheet function to record funding: who we’ve contacted and when, who has donated money and how much, and a running total of how much has been donated. Because updates are immediately available to everyone and there is only one copy, there are never any issues with people looking at outdated copies, and I can know immediately who has donated so I can then add them to our sponsors on the website.
  3. Creating forms. We decided to use Google Docs to create the registration form for the conference. Once people register and enter their information, Google Docs will take that information and enter it all into a spreadsheet for us.
Screen Shot of My Google Docs Page

Screen Shot of My Recently Used Google Docs

Google Docs has wider applications than conference planning, particularly in the classroom. I’ve had professors use it in classrooms to distribute activities: We all open the document and, in groups, fill out the information. Then it’s all projected on the board, and we can discuss the information as a larger group. At the end of last semester, Clay Spinuzzi wrote a pretty great blog post about the benefits of having students use Google Docs: 1) It’s online; 2) it’s private, so students don’t have to worry about other people seeing their work; and 3) it easily facilitates collaboration, which can be great for peer review. Spinuzzi also write about using Google Docs for grading, allowing students to see your comments in real-time. I’m not teaching this year, but but I often grade using Track Changes in Word. I think I’ll give Google Docs a try next time I teach, though.

In terms of Universal Design, I don’t know of any glaring issues with using Google Docs. Google has its own page dedicated to the accessibility of its products—http://www.google.com/accessibility/products/—which speaks specifically to how blind and low-vision users can use Google Docs. In terms of tech accessibility, Google Docs is pretty user-friendly, too. If nothing else, Google has a fair amount of support forums that can help you troubleshoot their services.

Typically, I’ve found that using technologies like Google Docs for student collaboration is really helpful for students who are uncomfortable speaking or engaging within the physical classroom. Using Google Docs for peer review and other collaborative projects could be really beneficial for a wide range of students: students who interact better online or in non-verbal media; students with LD, AS, or other social anxieties; students who just aren’t comfortable talking in class.

Still not sure about using it in the classroom? Check out these resources, which range from K-12 applications to higher ed purposes: