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Northwestern to showcase learning apps at TEACHx conference

Second annual event to introduce, explore tech innovations in learning and teaching

TEACHx, a day to spotlight technological innovations in teaching and learning and to inspire new connections between leaders in the field at Northwestern University and beyond, returns to the Evanston campus this month.

The second annual TEACHx conference will take place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, May 19, at Norris Center. Participants will take a deep dive into some of the digital and data-driven tools that have permeated almost all corners of academia.

Northwestern faculty and staff are invited to register to attend. The full schedule for this year’s program is available online.

The digital revolution has enabled scholars from across the globe to access rare texts and collaboratively work to unlock mysteries of the cosmos and the human body. New technologies have also revolutionized the classroom experience, fostering new methods for communication and collaboration between students and their professors.

Northwestern faculty will learn from and network with instructors who are leading innovations in teaching and learning through technology. Conference presenters will talk about teaching innovations in myriad disciplines with all 12 Northwestern schools represented.  

“TEACHx is really a celebration of Northwestern’s rich pedagogical environment,” said Robert Taylor, senior director, Academic & Research Technologies, Northwestern Information Technology. “We are excited to introduce new opportunities for our instructors to enhance their high levels of instruction and engagement with students — especially through the use of Learning Apps for Canvas.”

Three of the tools that will be featured at the conference were developed at Northwestern and are open source applications, made available for free to any institution that uses Canvas.


An alternative to the traditional discussion board, Nebula is the brainchild of Ph.D. student Jackie Ng in collaboration with Jacob Collins and Bill Parod of Northwestern Information Technology.

A teaching assistant in the McCormick School of Engineering’s service operations management course, Ng was frustrated with students’ disinterest in participating in online conversations.

Nebula: Northwestern Learning App from NU Digital Learning on Vimeo.

“Traditional discussion boards typically display posts in a chronological list,” Ng said. “That wasn’t working for us. So we came up with a more visual alternative that promotes collaborative and the team-based culture that greatly benefits student learning and achievement.”

Working with Northwestern Information Technology, Ng developed Nebula, an alternative to the traditional discussion board that displays discussions as network graphs. Nebula is an app that can be installed directly into Canvas.

Nebula is a 2017 IMS Global Consortium Learning Impact Awards finalist. If you like Nebula, public voting is open until May 17. 

Learn more about Nebula with Noshir Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. Professor of Behavioral Sciences, director of SONIC Research Group and a faculty of the McCormick School of Engineering, the School of Communication, and the Kellogg School of Management. 


Nina Wieda, a lecturer in the Chicago Field Studies program, uses Nebula, as well as a second learning app called Yellowdig.   

Yellowdig is a user-friendly, intuitive platform for students and instructors to share ideas, articles, websites and videos that relate to their course content. 

A classroom innovator in her own right, Wieda is using Yellowdig to enable a project for which Wieda is using Yellowdig to enable a project for which she and instructor Elizabeth McCabe received funding through the Provost’s Digital Learning Fellowship. 

Students in the Chicago Field Studies program will record, edit and analyze audio interviews focused on the subject of work and its meaning in peoples’ lives. Their projects will be featured and archived on a new “Working Stories” website. 

“The students are working with a lot of audio and video content, and Yellowdig is much stronger for multimedia,” said Wieda, who will be presenting at TEACHx. 

To enhance the Yellowdig experience, Northwestern IT has created the Yellowdig Viz learning app, which provides a way to visualize the class interactions taking place on the Yellowdig discussion boards. The tool uses a network graph to display the students, their Yellowdig pins (new posts referring to externally published content), and comments made on those pins or on other comments, making it easy to focus attention on particular areas of interest.

Featured speakers

Featured speakers include Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University, whose social media response to events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 led to #FergusonSyllabus, a multi-disciplinary and crowd-sourced list of resources. Jared Stein, vice president of research and education at Instructure, the company that makes Canvas, will also give a talk about how Northwestern is using Canvas.

Learning Apps for Canvas

Prominently featured this year is the suite of Learning Apps for Canvas, including three developed by faculty and staff at Northwestern*.  

  • Nebula* is a Northwestern alternative to the standard Canvas discussion board. A hybrid type of learning tool, the app offers analytic visualization of complex discussion dynamics and invites participation in that dynamic by allowing students and faculty to post and comment directly to the graphic. Nebula’s user-friendly and intuitive interface encourages increased student discussion and engagement.
  • Discussion Analytics* breaks down Canvas discussion forums using natural language processing tools to extract details, such as keywords, organizations and names from the online conversation. In addition, it computes the reading level required for each post.
  • Yellowdig is another discussion and posting tool that creates an easily accessible space for students and instructors to share ideas, articles, websites and videos that relate to their course content. Think of it as a mashup between a discussion board and Facebook.
  • Yellow Dig Viz*, created at Northwestern, uses a network graph to visually display student posts, comments and other interactions captured in Yellowdig, making it easier to focus attention on student interest in a specific activity.
  • Arc is an interactive video platform that allows students and instructors to upload their own videos in a private video channel for class assignments or discussion and feedback. Its unique feature is that it allows commenting right on the video.
  • UDOIT (Universal Design Online content Inspection Tool) app enables faculty to identify accessibility issues with a Canvas course and provides related resources to help address them. All online material should be accessible to all learners. This app will check over a Canvas course to pinpoint gaps such as videos lacking transcripts or images inaccessible to a screen reader.