Group writing is an integral part of the Engineering Profession but can be challenging at times because there are various opinions and writing styles to incorporate into one final product that satisfies everyone. Here is a visual representation of the process:


Helpful resources:


Special Projects Facilitator Giulia Forsythe from Brock University in St.Catharines, Ontario, Canada created some pretty amazing visuals as port of the University’s eLearning initiative. Well worth checking out! See her blog at

Not to be missed! Dubberly Design office’s beautiful model of the design process developed in collaboration with Jack Chung, Shelley Evenson, and Paul is an infrographic gem. Available for download as pdf from their site.

Dubberly Design office in collaboration with Jack Chung, Shelley Evenson, and Paul Pangaro.

Engineers use diagrams to represent complex information in abstract visual form. The process of abstraction is an essential part of the design process and is a way of exploring and problem-solving just as much as the resulting diamgram serves to communicate ideas and results.
This example of Function Analysis of a centrifugal pump by second year mechanical engineering students at Imperial College London (ILC) shows how concept mapping can help analyse and understand existing products.

Centrifugal Pump FAD

Concept mapping and Tufts University’s Open Source concept and content mapping application Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) were already  mentioned in an earlier post.

IBIS nodes Solid setBased on this excellent tool the Design Engineering Group of the Mechanical Engineering Department at ILC developed designVUE (the beta version release was announced recently). They augmented the concept mapping tool with a set of nodes for making decisions that allow you to identify issues, pros, cons and answers and indicate their status (e.g. resolved, insoluble, accepted, rejected…)
Combined with VUE’s ability to add web links, multimedia and files this functionality makes it a powerful tool for visualising design decisions and capturing background research.

Check out more designVUE Use Examples here.

What html is to the world wide web Mathematical Markup Language (MathML)  is to the world of online mathematics. MathML describes mathematical notations and capturing both mathematical meaning and structure to display equations in a web browser and other documents. (If you want to know more, Robert Miner’s article “The Importance of MathML to Mathematics Communication” is an interesting read in this context.)

A formula like x=−b±b2−4ac2a looks this:

An example for MathML code

You are asking yourself where the point of this is? Well, once equations become more complicated than a simple quadratic formula it can become quite a challenge to display them in a digital environment.

Take a standard deviation for instance:

Example of a standard deviation

Without MathML the alternative to display the formula online is an image and images can’t be edited nor used to compute. MathML keeps the meaning of a formula intact, which allows for computer to computer calculation.

Hang on – no need to panic! You don’t have to be a web developer to get your maths online. Take Web Equation for example – a cool online tool that takes your scribbles and converts it into LaTex and MathML code, which you can just copy and paste into your editor. In combination with a graphic tablet this is a neat way of getting your equations online – whether its in a web editor, office suite or the text editor of your LMS.

You could even use InftyReader’s Beta, speech-driven version of free Math Editor InftyEditor to dictate your equations:

Speech Recognition-Driven Math Editor Demo

An iPad app to watch out for:

Action mapping seems to be a new buzzword in corporate elearning lately. You might want to check out Cathy Moore’s article “How action mapping can change your design process“. OK, she is talking about corporate eLearning, but her supporting information at the Elearning Blueprint is really quite useful. Tom Gram takes the idea a bit further in his blog post “Extending Action Mapping for Performance Design“.

Now – don’t get me wrong – I do think it’s important (not to say crucial)  to focus on activities instead of content, but let’s be honest – this is nothing new. It takes us back to John Bigg’s notion of constructive alignment where design starts with the learning outcomes and teaching and assessment are aligned to those outcomes. Outcome statements center around a learning activity that will help students construct meaning and achieve this outcome. Learning is about what students do, assessment is about how well they achieve the intended outcomes.

Concept map illustrating the main ideas put forward by Biggs and the relationships between them in the Curriculum Design Process.

Terry Anderson’s Chapter “Toward a Theory of Online Learning” in Athabasca University’s book “Theory and Practice of Online Learning” is well worth a reread in this context too. (By the way the book is available  as an open source book under a Creative Commons License. You can download the eBook or download individual chapters.)

Anderson, T. (2008). Toward a Theory of Online Learning. In T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.), Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2 ed.). Athabasca: AU Press.

Anderson, T. (2008). Toward a Theory of Online Learning. In T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.), Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2 ed.). Athabasca: AU Press.

Anderson/Garrison’s model of online learning showing types of interaction.

What I like about action mapping:

  • a strong focus on learning activities meaningful context and connections to the profession
  • concept mapping can help visualise the design process.

LAMS  Learning Activity Management System takes the idea of mapping a step further still, to a level of  visual e-learning authoring.

LAMS –  a  visual authoring of learning activity sequences

LAMS is an award winning Open Source tool for designing, managing and delivering online collaborative learning activities. It can be used as a standalone authoring tool or integrate with a Learning Management System.  The intuitive tool allows to build reusable learning activities (modules) and drag and drop them into sequence. The result is a Graphic Workflow Models that makes it easy for students to understand and follow the learning path.

For an overview of LAMS educational theory and design rationale, please see  Dalziel, J. (2011). Visualising Learning Design in LAMS: a historical view. Teaching English with Technology – Special Issue on LAMS and Learning Design, 11(1), 19-34.

Concept maps are a visual tool that can be used in education to capture students’ prior knowledge, help them learn and understand complex concepts in context and evaluate student’s learning. Concept mapping is an effective way to organise and structure content, supporting individual learning as well as collaborative approaches. And the result does not need to look boring as Ian Wood proves with “The Duck (or Connectivist Duckworks)”.

The Duck (or Connectivist Duckworks)

Here are some resources you might find interesting:

Integrating concept maps into online learning is not as complicated as it might seem. Both cMap and VUE allow sharing online (see  this recent post for more information about concept mapping tools).

CmapServer automatically provides Web-page versions of collaboratively constructed concept maps  and allow users to build, share  and discuss their knowledge models. In case you want to set up your own server – the software is free for educational institutions. With VUE applet it is now possible to run VUE in your web browser. Both tools allow saving maps as html files or interactive web graphic which can easily be integrated into the LMS.

But there is more! There are plenty of free online whiteboard tools like Dabbleboard or Twiddla,  just to name a few that could become a useful addition to your learning management system. Link them in or even embed with an iframe to allow for collaborative mapping.

deviantART network for artists and art enthusiasts features a fancy online drawing board. If you have a weak spot for graphic design you might like have a play with DeviantART muro. With a selection of brushes, filters, the option to link a graphic tablet and layers available this is a powerful web-based drawing application. Pretty neat for a free tool!

Many web conferencing tools have a whiteboard you can use for mind mapping or allow application sharing. In case you don’t have access to web conferencing software you might like to try Skype or OpenMeetings, a free browser-based software.

Graphs and diagrams are common tools in engineering to predict performance of solutions, validate and optimise designs. Visualising how ideas, thoughts and concepts relate can really help to get the picture.

In case you find the terminology confusing Martin Davies’ article Mind Mapping, Concept Mapping, Argument Mapping: What are the differences and Do they Matter? might be an interesting read.

Creative industries use mind maps for problem solving and as imaginative technique to generate ideas. But you don’t need to be a designer to mind map: Monash University encourages students to use brainstorming and mind mapping for assignments.

Mind Map Inspirationfrom

Concept maps represent the relationships of concepts and can help communicate complex ideas and arguments. Quite often the most valuable information is in the head of experts and concept map have been used successfully as a tool to capture tacit knowledge.

Joseph D. Novak  and  Alberto J. Cañas have pioneered  concept maps as a constructive tool for learning and evaluation. Their free IHMC CmapTools allow creating individual and collaborative concept maps and are widely used in education and for research.

IHMC CmapTools

Visual understanding environment VUE from Tufts University takes concept mapping to content mapping. The tool allows to structure, present, and share information.

Vue ties in with open source reference management tool Zotero (great if you want to create a create visual maps of the literature!).

You can import VUE maps into OpenLabyrinth, an Open Source web application for authoring and delivering virtual patient and other decision path and maze-like activities). These activities are similar to a game-based exercise, and allow users to determine their own path through a case.
Cases can include text and supporting media in the form of images, sound or video. Learners can explore the options available to them, and the potential consequences of the path that they choose.

Virtual patients are a practical example from medicine and healthcare education, but concept maps for welding processes show that other  field bear similar potential for scenario based learning.

SkitchSkitch’s free iPad app (android versions available too) is a nifty little tool to draw and scribble on photos, maps, websites, screenshots or just on a blank canvas. Quickly snap a photo or screenshot and add your handwritten notes or sketches, arrows, shapes and text. Once you are done, you can send your annotated Skitch by e-mail, tweet it, save to the camera roll, display on a big screen or even share on Evernote.

Sign Language Interpreter Laura Lippincott uses Evernote and Skitch together to teach Sign Language by taking pictures and annotating them with Skitch. Jenn Vargas is a Product Manager and uses Skitch to annotate mockups and keep track of design inspiriations.

I have been asked about the header image for this blog. The ilustration depicts French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson’s  Digestive Duck, an automaton he created in 1738. (In case you find this intriguing you might like to read Stanford researcher Jessica Riskin’s article on the eighteenth-century mechanical wonder.)

This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired and thanks to Wikimedia Commons , a database of freely usable media files, it is available to me.

Apart from the fact that images can help make things look more attractive ( and that in itself should be reason enough!) they play a significant role in learning. Why are images important? Professor Richard E. Mayer, Department of Psychology at University of California spent many years researching how we learn and how multimedia can help us learn.

Ruth Clark has condensed some of the principles in her 2002 article for the elearning Developer’s Journal: “Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why“.

To improve understanding images should:

  • correspond with a concise text outlining key points
  • be embedded in a well structured environment
  • not contain unnecessary detail that could detract attention or confuse
  • be used consistantly

My favorite resources  for free good quality images

I consider a  good resource a site that is clutter free, has a good search functionality and I don’t have to worry about viruses and receiving spam e-mail for the rest of my life.

  • I mentioned  Wikimedia Commons as a great source for free-use images, sound and other media files.
  • Iconfinder is a search engine for high quality icons. The search options allow to select icons that are allowed for commercial use.
  • FlickrCommons: many Flickr users have chosen to offer their work under a Creative Commons license, and you can browse or search through content under each type of license.

You don’t need to be an artist to draw your own illustrations

Dan Roam, author of “The Back of the Napkin” shows it does’t take fancy drawing skills to make your point. Visit his website for videos and more resources and get those napkins out! Online whiteboards can make a brilliant digital napkin and save scanning your sketches. Excellent free web-based ready to go whiteboards are Twiddla, Scribblar or Dabbleboard. Twiddla  has a mathURL live equation editor and options for embedding widgets and documents.

Scribblar is a real-time multi-user whiteboard. It is also free and you don’t need to install anything on your computer. Registration is required but you can try a demo. Some of Scribblar’s great features are:

  • Wolfram Alpha a knowledge engine for Maths, Science, Physics, etc.
  • LaTeX equation editor

Dabbleboard  provides a voice and video chat option.

Explain Everything

This easy iPad app can help create annotate, animate, and narrate explanations and presentations. Explain Everything! Unfortunately not free but the price of A$2.99 seems reasonable for what you get. The app records on-screen drawing, annotation, object movement and captures audio via the iPad microphone. It is possible to import Photos, PDF, PPT, and Keynote from Dropbox, Evernote, Email, iPad photo roll and iPad2 camera. You can export MP4 movie files, PNG image files, and share the .XPL project file with others for collaboration.

Doodling is an incredible powerful tool for thinking and solving problems

Watch Sunni Brown’s TED talk on the power of doodling (5.51)