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Interaction Tools and Technology

Canvas Discussion Boards, Groups, and Wikis [CS]

Canvas Groups, sometimes called Student Groups, can be thought of as sub-sites of a Canvas Course site. Students can create groups of their own, or an instructor can set up groups. Depending on how the groups are configured by the instructor, group membership can be selected randomly, manually, or students can join a group of their choosing. Within a group, members have access to a private homepage, discussions, announcements, pages, files, collaborations, and conferences; many of the same features that are part of the full Canvas course site but in this case only available to the members of the group. Note: while student groups are private to the student group members, instructors can enter any student group and view the group activity.

When Should I Use Canvas Groups?

Canvas Groups are helpful when you want students to work in groups. If you plan to give students a group assignment, you can create group sets to split students into groups so that each group will submit the assignment collectively.

Groups can be used as an alternative to discussions. Many times a discussion is really a peer-reviewed group assignment in disguise. Instead of asking students to write an essay or make a presentation as a group and post it to a discussion, have them submit their essay or presentation as an assignment and require them to use the Canvas peer review tools to give feedback or even grade each other. This can be done within groups or even opened up to the entire class.


This video on Canvas Group Creation and Management for Instructors explains the basic use of groups from an instructor perspective. For more information on using Groups, please see the How-To-Guide: Effectively Use Canvas Groups.

Overview of Canvas Wikis

Canvas pages are also sometimes referred to as Wiki pages. The word “Wiki” comes from the Hawaiian word meaning fast or quick. Canvas pages are more than just content pages. They can double as true Wiki pages because you, as the teacher, can not only alter the permissions for who can edit them, but you can also track the page history of edits and who made them.

When Should I Use Canvas Wikis?

In addition to containing all the content you need for your course, Canvas pages can be used as collaboration tools for group or class work depending on how the instructor sets the permissions for those specific pages.

When creating a wiki page for student use, select “Teachers and students” from the options pop-up window at the bottom of the setup screen.

Instructor view

In a course, instructors can create a new page with text, images, media, links, and/or other files [1]. The Options icon [2] allows instructors to edit the title of a page, delete a page, or use it as the front page.

Student view

Students can view pages in courses. However, instructors can allow students to edit and contribute to course pages. Students can always create pages in their student group.
In groups, students can view the same page layout with the name of the page, creation dates, and edit dates. They can also add new pages in a group [1]. In the Options icon [2], they can edit, delete, or use a page as the front page for a group.

Additional Resources

For more information on using Wiki pages in Canvas, visit the “What are pages?” Canvas Community web page.


Nebula is a discussion visualization tool developed by Northwestern’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Northwestern Information Technology. It runs concurrently with the Canvas discussion board, so students have the option to access the regular discussion board or Nebula’s network graph interface, where posts are represented by nodes. The size of each node represents the word count of the post, and the color of node differentiates the author’s own posts from those of the instructor or other students in the course.

Nebula ExampleWhen to use?

According to its creators, Nebula has five main benefits over the typical Canvas discussion board:

  • It presents the entire discussion board history on one interface, so participants don’t have to scroll through so much text.
  • Different colors (designating the author - self, other student, or instructor) and sizes (representing word count) provide participants a visual overview of their participation relative to others in the course.
  • It allows participants to visualize the overall number of new ideas generated on each topic.
  • It gives participants a sense of the popularity of each thread within a discussion.
  • Nebula Instructor, the companion instructor interface, supports research about online learning communities. 

You can install Nebula in any course from the Northwestern Learning App Store.


Nebula’s visualization focus could present a challenge to students with visual disabilities. However, Nebula is an optional discussion board interface. If a student is unable to interact with Nebula, they can simply use the standard, text-based Canvas discussion board.

Additional Resources

  • Northwestern Information Technology provides a step-by-step setup guide for Nebula.
  • IDS instructor David Noffs used Nebula in his showcase course, IDS 425.
  • The creation of Nebula was covered in McCormick Engineering News
  • Nebula was the topic of the February 2016 Online Learning Webinar.