Nebula: An Interactive Discussion Forum Interface to Promote Peer Learning & Engagement

What is Nebula?

Nebula is a Canvas tool developed at Northwestern that provides a new way of viewing and participating in discussion boards. Discussions are presented as a network graph, in which posts are nodes and edges are replies to posts.

Nebula is a visual alternative to traditional discussion boards that display posts in a chronological list and use indentation to depict the hierarchical nature of posts and comments. It is dynamic and engaging, and has been used in over two dozen courses at Northwestern since it was first launched in Fall 2015. Nebula is accessible to any instructor, and can be downloaded to Canvas in one easy click in the Northwestern Learning Apps Store.

Nebula was a recent finalist for the IMS Learning Impact Awards in the E-collaborative learning category. This video was produced for the competition and explains how Nebula changes the nature of online discussions:

Project Highlights

We conducted two studies as part of the 2016-2017 Provost Digital Learning Fellowship award. Our first study reveals that Nebula impacts the nature of online discussions by promoting greater information and affective exchanges between students. Our second study reveals that simple interventions or messages can improve the evenness of participation among students during online discussions and the completeness with which students analyze their discussion topic(s). Below we provide more details on each of these studies.

How does Nebula Change Online Discussions by Impacting Team Dynamics?

In the first study, we examined how the visualization and interactive features in Nebula affect team dynamics to enhance success and mitigate failure. Specifically, we designed and conducted a study in two courses, an undergraduate engineering course, and a masters level MBA course that exposed students to both the traditional, threaded discussion board and Nebula. Then, using text analysis and a new method of social network analysis, called Exponential Random Graphs Model (ERGM), we compared the interaction patterns of students using the traditional discussion board and Nebula.

Our results reveal two interesting trends:

  1. First, students were more likely to use relationship building expressions when discussing topics in Nebula. For example, students were more likely to refer to their classmates by name, use more pronouns to reference each other’s posts and comments, as well as more emotion. This indicated that Nebula made students more aware of others, leading to higher interactions among peers.
  2. Second, we found that Nebula alters the nature of interactions among students. By studying the interaction patterns of students using both discussion interfaces, we find that Nebula leads to more dyadic or paired exchanges, where students exchange messages back and forth which each other. In contrast, students were more likely to respond indirectly to their peers when interacting on the traditional, threaded discussion board. Once again, these findings suggest that students become more aware of their peers when using Nebula, which seemed to encourage them to interact more frequently with others. 
  3. Third, to better understand why we saw these differences, we surveyed students at the end of one of the courses to solicit their perceptions of the communication media. Below we highlight some sample comments:

Student 1: “I preferred Nebula just because I thought it was more engaging and made it more fun to actually read classmates’ thoughts.”

Student 2: “Nebula’s advantage is the ability to write comments on people’s posts is very intuitive and [it] shows the flow of discussions.”

Student 3: “I liked how Nebula allows you to see all responses at once, so it is easy to just scroll over and read.”

Student 4: “I liked Nebula more because I did not have to scroll through each post whenever I was looking for something.”

How Can Simple Interventions Improve the Quality of Online Discussions?

In the second study, we examined how simple interventions can improve the ways that students share information with each other and analyze the topic of discussion. Specifically, we conducted a large study across three classes of nearly 200 students, where students participated in weekly online group discussions. For some of the groups, we incorporated messages below some of the discussion prompts, with the intention of encouraging greater team building or teamwork behaviors and more complete analysis of the task. Other groups saw a control condition message that did not provide instructions on how their groups should approach their interactions.

Below we show a sample message:


We then analyzed how these message prompts altered the structure or nature of interaction patterns using ERGM analysis. By comparing the “control” groups to the “treatment groups”, we found that the messages improved the completeness of information exchange during discussions and the evenness of participation. In other words, we found that students were more likely to complete an idea exchange rather than leave it open or unfinished, and were more likely to contribute equally to the discussion. Thus, the findings of this study suggest that simple interventions can improve the quality of online discussions by encouraging students to contribute more thoughtfully and thoroughly to the conversation.

Nebula Project Team

The Nebula project team consists of Noshir Contractor, the Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavior Sciences, Seyed Iravani, Professor of Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences, and Jackie Ng, a fourth year PhD candidate in Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences. The Nebula project team is grateful for the support and funding they received from the Northwestern University Provost, which made this project a possibility.

Nebula Development Team

Nebula is a collaborative effort between Northwestern’s Department of Industrial Engineering (Jackie Ng, Seyed Iravani and William J. White) and Northwestern Information Technology (Jacob Collins and Bill Parod). We designed Nebula as an LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) app to be compatible with Northwestern’s educational platform, Instructure Canvas. Canvas is a software application that distributes online or blended courses over the Internet with features for managing training and educational records, and online collaboration.

Presenting Author Profiles

Jackie Ng is a 4th year PhD candidate in the department of Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences at the McCormick School of Engineering. Her research interests focus on how technology use and innovation can improve the effectiveness of virtual teams. She is also interested in the applications of social networks theories to her research theme, and has been on the Nebula Development Team since its inception.

Noshir Contractor is the Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the McCormick School of Engineering & Applied Science, the School of Communication and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, USA. He is the Director of the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) Research Group at Northwestern University. He is investigating factors that lead to the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of dynamically linked social and knowledge networks in a wide variety of contexts including communities of practice in business, translational science and engineering communities, public health networks and virtual worlds.


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