Nebula: A Graphic Interface for Discussion Forums

by Jackie Wickham Smith

Northwestern’s department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences and Northwestern Information Technology have created Nebula, a tool that presents discussion forum activity as a visual network graph.

Nebula was developed to increase interaction and collaboration in the discussion board environment. Using Nebula, students and faculty can see the entire discussion board history on one interface. Different node colors represent participants’ own contributions, and the read or unread status of each discussion post. The size of each node on the network graph represents the length of the post. These attributes allow discussion participants to easily visualize their activity in the class relative to their peers. Discussion participants can also gauge the popularity and number of new ideas generated for each topic based on the number of connections for each post, which represent replies.

In the traditional discussion board format, users have the tendency to only respond to recent posts. Rather than ordering posts chronologically, Nebula shows all posts according to how they fit into the conversation, rather than when they were posted.

The team that developed Nebula has piloted the tool in on-campus engineering, management, and business classes with positive reviews from students. One student in a management engineering class stated, “There is a lot of intrinsic motivation in seeing that your comment started a conversation. For me, it shifted participation from externally to internally motivated part of the course.”

Online instructors may wish to use Nebula to give students an alternative to the traditional Canvas discussion board format, appeal to different learning styles, and easily visualize discussion activity. Nebula integrates seamlessly with Canvas and links automatically to the discussion board without replacing it. In courses using Nebula, students have the option to participate through the Canvas discussion board or through the Nebula interface.

For more information on the history of Nebula, read this article from the McCormick School of Engineering.

If you would like to participate in a test Nebula discussion or use Nebula in your online course, please contact me at