Cool Tools: Online Mind Mapping

Mind maps are a useful tool for students to organize their thoughts, papers, or both. There is a wide variety of mind mapping software now, among them Novamind  and Vue that are installed on our lab computers. (We also have several lesson plans that involve mind maps).

Online mind mapping tools such as mindmup have some advantages over locally installed software: they make it easier for students to continue working on their mind map at home, to collaborate with other students or share their work with their instructor. There is now quite a variety of mind mapping services offered online; in this blog post I am reviewing three that are potentially useful for teaching and try to point out their strengths and weaknesses.

To be included in this survey, mind mapping tools had to meet three basic requirements that seem essential for use in the classroom: They had to be free to use, not require any kind of local install, and not require user registration.

This left me with the online mind mapping services by mindmup.com, wisemapping.com and mindmapfree.com . Below is a short review of each, especially focusing on the questions:

  • how easy is it to use this tool?
  • how can students save and share their work?
  • how easy is it to include outside material such as images and links?
  • do the results look pretty?
  • what does the provider do with the user’s data?

1. mindmup.com: my favorite

mindmup.com is a no-frills but very flexible mind mapping tool. Creating a mind map requires only three keys on your keyboard: Hit “Tab” to add a node, “Return” to add a new central node and “Space” to edit any node (in case you are too lazy to click on it). You can use the mouse to move around any element of the map. Zooming and more intricate formatting happen on a clearly laid out little dashboard. The shortcuts for text editing are mostly identical to the ones students will be familiar with from Microsoft Word. Pasting images or text copied from elsewhere into the mind map worked flawlessly for me. When uploading images from the hard drive, however, one needs to somewhat clumsily (at least in my case) choose the right image size by hand though.

Several students can collaborate on one map at the same time through their Google Docs account (which comes with their school email account). They can save and share their finished mind maps on a Google drive, or export them as .png images or .pdf files. Maps can also be stored on Dropbox or on Github.

Other interesting features are a storyboard creation tool and a service called “Atlas” that allows users to embed mind maps into web sites or social network feeds.

Mindmup does fall short, though, when it comes to making pretty maps: the standard font cannot be changed; and while users can pick the color of nodes, the design options are nowhere near what for instance Novamind provides, which offers various shapes of nodes and branches to choose from. If you want your mind maps to look colorful and exciting, you might want to try the next option:

2. wisemapping.com: for the artistically inclined

wisemapping.com – which is a bit of a Novamind-lookalike – has all the flashy stuff mindmup might be lacking: there are plenty of shapes and colors to choose from (there is even an extensive selection of smilies). wisemapping has more to it than optics though. Students can for example add detailed pop-up notes to any part of their mind map; various arrows can be used to illustrate relationships between different elements; widely branching mind maps can be collapsed at any level for easier readability; all changes to the map are documented in its history and easily reversible. For the most part, the learning curve is as non-existent as with mindmup. All the features are explained in a helpful, if a little lengthy, YouTube video.

When moving around elements of the map, however, they tend to connect unexpectedly to other nodes or get isolated from the rest of the map. I was also unable to copy and paste images from other websites into nodes or get wisemapping to automatically make links clickable.

And while wisemapping, just like mindmup,  offers a variety of ways to save a mind map – such as creating an image or .pdf file – these only work after students have signed up for a free account.

3. mindmapfree.com: just like pen and paper

mindmapfree.com has a lot of shortcomings, one of them that it is ad-supported (“Give in to your chili cravings!”, its banner advised me). However, it does offer the most straightforward and (to me) natural approach to mind maps. Starting from a central “idea”, the user just drags a red do to wherever they want to place the next node, repeats this from there, etc. It is the true digital equivalent of drawing a mind map on a piece of paper. So if you want the digital tool with the analogue feel, this is the app for you. It also lets you store maps on your computer, on a Google Drive or a Box account.

Anyone looking for even more online mind mapping tools might want to take a look at the popular bubbl.us, which is currently undergoing some major revisions; coggle.it, which requires students to sign up; or the quirky mindomo.com.

If you wonder about the pedagogical value of mind maps, you can read up on some of the research here and here.

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