Visual Collaboration and Brainstorming Tools for Student Teams

From the Series: Online Tools for Hybrid and Remote Teaching

Photo by John Schnobrich.

Group brainstorms and projects can be a great way to get students to work collaboratively on course topics, engage in more open-ended discussions, and develop and demonstrate their understanding of material better than through individualized research papers or traditional class discussion boards. When we are teaching courses either completely online or through a hybrid of physical classroom and online instruction, we may encounter barriers to creating spaces for students to engage interactively with each other. However, this post offers resources that instructors can use to add elements of active and collaborative learning that go beyond text-based discussion boards and video seminars. These platforms range from spaces for synchronous brainstorming to platforms that can be accessed at any time by students and instructors to add content as their schedules allow.

We start our discussion with Zoom Whiteboard, representing the most limited of the brainstorming and collaborative tools in this set—but also the most accessible if Zoom is already being used in your university’s online classrooms. We then introduce some external tools with more extensive features that enable both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. Using these tools can create more engaging discussions, incorporate visual media, and provide participation opportunities to students less comfortable or less able to contribute to online synchronous discussions. This post will discuss the following platforms: Zoom Whiteboard, Mural, Padlet, and (briefly) Google Jamboard.

Platform 1: Zoom Whiteboard

During these times when we are primarily working online, many of us have become well-versed in Zoom video calling. Zoom Whiteboard is a function within the Zoom session that allows synchronous visual interactions during a Zoom call. As long as you have a Zoom account and have enabled this whiteboard function in your settings, you will have access. This function is great for instructors who use chalkboards or whiteboards in their classrooms for large or small group brainstorming. Depending on your comfort level, the size of your groups, and your purposes in using the Zoom Whiteboard, you can allow all students to annotate onto the whiteboard or you can allow only yourself, as the instructor and host of the meeting, to do annotations.

To access the Zoom Whiteboard, you can click Share screen on the bottom menu. From the menu that opens, you can either select a blank whiteboard or a document or image you already have open on your desktop, and the chosen element will appear for everyone to see. By selecting the Annotate option, students and instructors can write, draw, or comment on the shared screen or whiteboard. Another option is to plug in a tablet or other external device that you can use with a stylus for easier writing; this option also appears after you click Share screen.

Zoom Whiteboard has several limitations:

  1. It can only be used for synchronous brainstorming and discussion during a Zoom call, so if you are conducting an asynchronous course, this is not a good option.
  2. Participants with low bandwidth will experience a lag in creating and moving annotations.
  3. Annotations are overlaid on—not actually added to—the document, image, or whiteboard. While you can save the annotations themselves by taking a screenshot or clicking the “Save” option in the whiteboard controls, no modifications will be made to your original file. If you want to make a document that can be continuously created and re-arranged, Zoom Whiteboard is not the ideal tool.

Platform 2: Mural

Mural provides a digital workspace for group brainstorming and collaborative creation through the use of templates or blank whiteboard spaces. When navigating to the website, you can sign up for a free trial, and this free trial can be linked to a free education account if you are affiliated with an institution (as a student or an instructor). When signing up, you need to name your workspace, and this could be a class name or a project name. At this point, you can start inviting collaborators on different mural projects.

Within each board, you are free to add sticky notes, text boxes, images, shapes, connectors, as well as link any of these with outside URLs or files that you want to upload to the brainstorming board. There are many shapes, symbols, and connectors to choose from, and assigning people different colors could be a way of seeing who suggests what idea or contributes a specific part of the project. There is an associated chat box on each project where people can speak with each other when they are working at the same time on the project; alternatively, the chat can be used as a record of thoughts and ideas about how to move forward. People can also comment on individual pieces in the workspace if they have questions or want to draw attention to specific details.

When you add details to the workspace, you need to think about the size and organization of information because Mural allows you to create elements of many different sizes and utilize zoom in and zoom out functions. This allows you to make major ideas larger in the workspace and make facets of those major ideas smaller and more visible when someone zooms in to the workspace (see the screenshots below).

Additionally, the platform supports timed brainstorming and voting. There is a built-in timer in the top center that can be used to give yourself or your students a timed session for work. The voting option gives participants in the workspace the opportunity to vote on what elements of the project they find most interesting or to say which elements they want to work on for the project. You can ask whatever question you want from within the voting platform, but it has to be a question that can be answered by other participants clicking on elements already within the workspace. For instance, after five minutes of brainstorming individually on the workspace, a voting element could provide a democratic way to choose what brainstormed elements match with the overall project the students want to pursue.

Mural limitations:

  1. Within educator accounts, you are allowed up to ten “members” who would see your entire dashboard and twenty-five “guests” who can be invited to individual murals. The utility of this platform would therefore be limited for classes over thirty-five students, even if each student registered for an account. If you wished to use Mural with a larger group, you would have to buy a different level of membership, and each of your collaborators would also have to buy a membership to contribute.
  2. To an even greater extent than Zoom whiteboard, participants with low bandwidth will experience a lag in creating and moving Mural elements, particularly when many people are working on the same Mural simultaneously.
Figure 1. Sample mural workspace. This image is a screen shot of the entire workspace of a sample project zoomed out as far as possible. The main idea is in the middle and arrows connect thematic topics or other ideas coming out of the main idea (to the top left, bottom left, and bottom right). In the top right, there are links to websites with helpful resources for the project. In the far left panel of the Mural application, you see the suite of tools to add sticky notes, shapes, symbols, templates, images, file uploads, and drawings. The title of the project appears on the top left. The voting application (circled in purple) and the timer options (circled in red) are to the right of the title. In the bottom right, Mural shows the part of the project you are seeing on your screen (colored purple), within the context of the total project (within the green square). Created by Erin Gould on
Figure 2. Zoomed-in look at the bottom left corner (“Thematic Topic 1”) from the same Mural Workspace as above. This image is a screen shot of the bottom-left quadrant of the project; you can determine this by looking at the map of the project (bottom right within the green square; the purple highlighted section is what you see on screen). Zoomed in, the thematic topic label is very large, but underneath it, there are smaller elements with information about how the project is organized by the students. Created by Erin Gould on
Figure 3. Zoomed-in look at the top right corner (“Extra Resources”) from same Mural Workspace. This image is a screen shot of the top-right corner of the project; you can determine this by looking at the map of the project (within the green square). Since we are zoomed into this section, the Extra Resources label appears very large, and you can see embedded hyperlinks to URLs and PDFs that are included in this workspace (blue circled elements). Created by Erin Gould on

Platform 3: Padlet

Padlet is a platform for creating collaborative virtual bulletin boards. Padlet is easy to access and fairly simple to use. As a teacher, if you create a Padlet and allow users with the link to contribute (you must enable Visitors can write in the sharing settings menu), your students can add posts to a board without creating their own account. The free account version of the platform allows users to create and work on three boards simultaneously, so with this account option, you can coordinate different Padlets for three different courses. However, you are limited to these three Padlets, so you will have to recycle Padlets if you need more than three for the term. You can download or export PDF files of your Padlets, and then clear them for reuse with a different topic.

Students can add links, text, and images to a relatively clean and orderly interface with a selection of colorful and themed backgrounds. Depending on the requirements of your course or brainstorming activity, you can choose from many different options of Padlets, including walls, shelves, or grids (where posts are organized in grid fashion with some slight nuances in each style); canvases (where posts can be placed in whatever order and linked together through more free-form creation); streams or backchannels (where the information flows as you scroll up and down the page); timelines (where information is organized through a series of nodes organized from left to right); or maps (where information and posts are overlaid on specific locations on the world map). Padlet can be used as an alternative or supplement to the discussion board feature built into many learning management systems (LMS) and offers you the option of having students’ names shown when they create notes or comments on the Padlet, allowing you to see what students are interacting with which materials or questions.

Padlet limitations:

  1. The major disadvantage is the lack of a flexible zooming option that would allow the viewer to get a big-picture view of larger idea maps (for this functionality, check out the platform Mural above).
  2. You are allowed only a few Padlets on a free account (up to three). This may not be ideal if you were hoping to have multiple Padlet prompts for one class. Since the platform encourages great interactivity, other individuals have created free alternatives to this design that you can find here.

For examples of Padlets, check out this gallery (a Padlet of links to other Padlets), and the examples featured below.

Figure 4. A sample padlet created using the flexible “canvas” format. A canvas format Padlet that shows a discussion question at the top center and student ideas or answers organized loosely around it. This way of organizing elements can show the circuitous flow of student responses but can also allow students to make connections between different ideas and label those connections (as in the label Next Step here). Created by Isabel Salovaara on
Figure 5. A sample Padlet created using the shelf format. A shelf format example which shows a way to organize weekly discussions on Padlet. The weeks move from left to right, and each week has additional text boxes below it. The top text box underneath each week features a large discussion question for students to answer. Their answers, like a traditional discussion board, are arranged in the column underneath the corresponding discussion question. However, students can also add links and images as well as comment on each other’s responses. Created by Isabel Salovaara on

Platform 4: Google Jamboard

Google Jamboard is part of the Google Suite of options for classroom engagement, which can be convenient if your institution is already running on Gmail services. If you navigate to, you can sign in with your institution credentials, similar to accessing other services from the GSuite. Jamboard offers functionalities similar to Padlet but more limited than Mural, with an emphasis on sticky notes and whiteboard functionalities (writing and erasing). Jamboards, once created, can be shared with an unlimited number of participants and can be accessed on phones, tablets, or computers as long as a participant can log in to their Google account.


Visual brainstorming and collaboration tools available in the digital realm are certainly not limited to those featured in this post, but these represent a small collection of platforms used and suggested by contributors to Fieldsights. These online, synchronous and asynchronous tools will provide elegant spaces of collaboration as we navigate our paths through online and hybrid classroom platforms.