Facilitating Online Collaboration (Part 1) – Visualization Tools

As teachers, we know that collaborative, inquiry-based activities can promote students’ engagement and enhance problem-solving skills. Shifting our practice from facilitating f2f classroom collaboration to online collaboration may require some extra tools and strategies. Dr Susan Bridges shares her use of e-tools such as concept maps and mind maps for synchronous and asynchronous online collaboration and we have added some more options!

Concept Mapping

Concept mapping is a technique for creating knowledge graphs (see Novak, 1993). These are networks of concepts which consist of labelled nodes (representing concepts) and links (representing relations between concepts). Links can be non-, uni-or bi-directional to indicate whether the nodes are simply associative, specified, or divided into categories such as causal or temporal relations.

What is the difference between mind maps and concept maps:

  • A mind map usually has only one main concept, while a concept map may have several concepts 
  • A mind map shows associations, while a concept map shows relationships and interactions.

Why use concept mapping? Concept mapping can be used for serval purposes (Stockard, 2006, p. 75):

  • to generate ideas (brainstorming); 
  • to design a complex structure (long texts, hypermedia, large web sites); 
  • to communicate complex ideas; 
  • to aid learning by explicitly integrating new and old knowledge; 
  • to assess understanding or diagnose misunderstanding. 

How to draw a concept map (see Athuraliya, 2019):

  1. Focus question
    The first step is to identify the topic/ question.
  2. Listing
    Brainstorm prior learning, list the facts, ideas, new concepts etc. that come to mind when you think about the topic?
  3. Organizing
    Concept maps can be organized hierarchically from top to bottom with the most general and inclusive concepts at the top of the map with more specific sub-nodes below. However, concept maps are not limited to this structure using a free-form approach starting from the centre and spreading outwards.
  4. Linking
    Draw and label the connections/relationships between nodes. 
  5. Hypothesizing (getting creative)
    Once the direct connections between concepts have been identified, students can start hypothesizing and identify crosslinks that link together concepts from different areas or domains. 

Digital Tools

CmapTools is the most powerful of concept mapping tools. There are three versions: CmapTools (for Desktop), CmapTools for iPad and CmapTools in the Cloud. Using CmapTools for the Desktop, two users can edit the same Cmap real-time (synchronous collaboration) if both open the Cmap and edit it. The first one to edit the Cmap must approve the collaboration requests from the other users. CmapTools in the Cloud does not currently allow real-time collaboration.

Office 365 PowerPoint
You can use the tools you already have to create, edit, and share a concept map with your peers. All HKU students and staff can download and install Office 365 for free with additional 5TB OneDrive cloud storage. You can share your presentation with others and collaborate on it in real-time.

It is an online visual drawing platform that is used to allow users to collaborate on drawing, revising and sharing charts and diagrams. If you’ve given others edit access to your diagram, you can work together in real-time.

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping® is a popular technique (see Buzan & Buzan, 2006).

  1. Take one central word or concept, around which are drawn 5 to 10 related main ideas 
  2. Draw 5 to 10 related main ideas to each of those ‘child’ words.

Digital Tools


It is an online mind mapping application that allows its users you to visualize, share and present their thoughts on the cloud. It also supports real-time collaboration.

It is a mind-mapping web application. You can create hierarchically structured documents, like a branching tree, mind maps. It supports real-time collaboration and the free version of coggle allows you to upload unlimited images.

You can contact the e-learning team (elearning.edu@hku.hk) if you need support or advice.​

Additional Resource

Faculty members have contributed to a special issue on Novakian concept mapping.


Athuraliya, A. (2019, April 30). The Ultimate Guide to Concept Maps: From Its Origin to Concept Map Best Practices. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://creately.com/blog/diagrams/ultimate-concept-map-tutorial/

Buzan, T., & Buzan, B. (2006). The mind map book. Pearson Education.

Novak, J. (1993). How Do We Learn Our Lesson? Taking students through the process. The Science Teacher, 60(3), 50-55.

Stockard Jr, J. W. (2006). Handbook for teaching secondary school social studies. Waveland Press.