Many thanks indeed to everyone who took the time to complete our ‘What new features do you want to see in your Ultra courses?’ survey that ran during August and September 2022.

The good news is that most features that staff wanted to see in Ultra are either already available or are in development. The University of Northampton, along with many other institutions worldwide who use Ultra, have been working with Blackboard to provide ideas and feedback about Ultra, and in response to this Blackboard have recently tripled the size of their Ultra development team and have substantially increased the rate at which Ultra is developing and improving.

Below are the responses that we received from staff about what improvements they wanted to see in Ultra, along with a response from the Learning Technology Team about whether the improvements are available or coming soon. Please note that where improvements are planned for one to three months, they are very likely to be implemented. Improvements planned for three to six months are in development, and is it fairly likely that these will be implemented. Improvements planned for six to twelve months are in the early stages of development and may be implemented, but this could change.

Also, did you know that new features are added to Ultra courses every month? Normally, Blackboard is upgraded on the evening of the first Thursday of each month, meaning that new tools are features are available on the first Friday of each month. The Learning Technology Team provide a summary of all the new features that are coming to Ultra courses, and you can keep up-to-date with each month’s upgrade at:

Survey responses from staff and replies from the Learning Technology Team

Response 1. “Exportable Rubrics – I would like to be able to create a rubric in NILE Ultra and then download it as a document (PDF?) and then add that to the NILE section on Assessments so students can easily see the criteria. I’d also like the rubric window when assessing to take up more of the screen – currently it’s over to the right hand side in a really narrow space which can be difficult when giving longer feedback.”

Response 2. “Rubrics in a grid.”

Reply to 1 & 2: When a Blackboard Ultra assignment, test, discussion or journal is marked with a rubric, students are automatically able to view the rubric as many times as they like prior to submitting the assignment. Students can do this by selecting the assignment and choosing ‘This item is marked with a rubric’. This will open the rubric, but will not begin the submission process, so students can come back as often as they like in order to view the rubric.

• Student view of accessing a rubric

Blackboard are also aware that the current view of the rubric is narrow, and there have been many requests to Blackboard for the complete rubric to be viewable in an expanded, grid, or pop-out view. Blackboard have added this to their roadmap for Ultra, and improvements to the ways that rubrics can be viewed will be available in a future upgrade, currently planned for release in the next six to twelve months.

Response 3. “Analytics: The ability to track student engagement with NILE sites. With the old NILE system, it was possible to see how engaged students had been with modules, e.g., if they’d downloaded items, looked at lecture slides etc. Not only was this useful to see if students were active on the course, but it also helped if they were claiming that they had been but this wasn’t the case. It was also sometimes a vital tool when there were submission problems, to be able to see if the student had actually been on the site and attempted to submit. It’s really important that module leaders are able to access this information quickly and easily.”

Response 4. “An ability or an easier ability to track student interactivity within the NILE sites – when they last came on and when they or if they have accessed certain files/information/content.”

Reply to 3 & 4: Following the October 2022 upgrade, when track progress is enabled, it is possible to view student interactions with many different types of content in Ultra courses. Once track progress is enabled, the student progress option is automatically enabled for content items for which student progress can be tracked.

• Progress tracking on/off switch
• Accessing information about student progress

Blackboard are also planning further improvements to the analytics that are available in Ultra courses, and have recently announced that a student overview tool will be included in an upgrade in three to six months’ time. The planned student overview tool is intended to provide a comprehensive overview of each student’s activity, performance, and progress in their Ultra course.

Response 5. “Leader boards.”

Reply to 5: Leader boards in Original courses were provided by a third-party supplier who has, unfortunately, chosen to discontinue work on this tool. This means that the leader board functionality is not available in Ultra courses, and will be also be unavailable in Original courses by the end of 2023 when Blackboard will remove the underlying technology (known as ‘building blocks’) that supported the leader board tool. At present, there do not appear to be any alternative tools that provide this functionality.

Response 6. “Sorting or ordering items without dragging.”

Reply to 6: A number of staff using Ultra have reported that drag-and-drop ordering and re-ordering of content is problematic, especially when using a laptop with a smaller screen. Blackboard are aware of this and are making improvements to the way that content is moved in Ultra courses, and which will be included in a future upgrade in approximately one to three months’ time.

Response 7. “Multiple level folder structures.”

Reply to 7: At present, a top-level folder (or a top-level learning module) can contain only one other folder. The rationale for this is that content is less likely to become lost in complex folder structures, and to ensure that, once students have opened the course, no content item is more than three clicks away. To better support students trying to find content in their Ultra courses, Blackboard have announced that a course content search function will be included in a upcoming upgrade in one to three months’ time.

Response 8. “Thumbnails for external videos.”

Reply to 8: When adding an external video from both Kaltura and YouTube to an Ultra document, a video thumbnail is now available.

• Video with thumbnail included in an Ultra document

More information about creating and working with Ultra documents is available from Blackboard’s Create Content Items or Documents page.

Response 9. “Hotspots questions.”

Reply to 9: Hotspot questions are currently in development for Ultra tests, and Blackboard have announced that these are planned for release in a future upgrade in one to three months’ time.

Response 10. “Groups on timed assignments.”

Reply to 10: A timed test cannot currently be assigned to a group or groups of students. It is not known when or whether Blackboard are likely to incorporate this into a future upgrade, but we have sent this idea to Blackboard via their Ideas Exchange platform. Currently the idea has been marked by Blackboard as ‘future consideration’ which means that they will consider implementing it in a future upgrade. This is a positive response from Blackboard, as ideas that they do not feel are viable are usually marked ‘unlikely to implement’.

Response 11. “Surveys.”

Reply to 11: Surveys, which were available in Original courses, are not currently available in Ultra courses. However, this functionality has been requested and Blackboard have announced that they are planning to implement surveys in Ultra courses as part of a wider upgrade that brings in other additional functionality around the use of formative and ungraded assessments, as well as surveys. The planned release time for the whole range of tools that support formative and ungraded assessments, and surveys, is three to twelve months.

Response 12. “Gradebook is a mess, confusing and difficult to navigate.”

Response 13. “Gradebook returned to old format GC [Grade Centre].”

Reply to 12 & 13: Blackboard have made a number of improvements to the Ultra gradebook, and have more improvements planned. The key improvements to the gradebook that are already in place are the ability to reorder gradebook columns, gradebook search, a gradebook filter which allows staff to apply filters the gradebook based on which assignments and/or which students they want to see, and a grid view of the gradebook which presents a view which looks much more like the old grade centre in Original courses.

• Ultra gradebook with grid view marked (in red), and search and filter tools highlighted

A number of additional improvements are also planned for gradebook. Upgrades planned for the next one to three months will make the Ultra gradebook easier to navigate, and will allow staff to grade student work more efficiently by adding in features that allow quicker access to submissions that need grading, easier switching between multiple submission attempts, and reducing the overall number of clicks needed to grade and feedback on an assignment submission. Other gradebook improvement include features that will provide greater insights into student performance and activity, and a remembered gradebook view, in which the gradebook will remember your preferred gradebook view (list view or grid view) and will default to this each time that you access the gradebook. Future upgrades will also prevent undeployed tests from showing in the gradebook, which will improve the navigability of the gradebook for staff who have a lot of tests in their Ultra courses.

Response 14. “I would like to be able to add visuals to announcements. We work on a creative course and not to be able to use visuals is a problem.”

Reply to 14: When creating an announcement, it is now possible to add visuals using the attachment option (the paperclip icon) in the content editor.

• Adding an attachment to an announcement
• Announcement with image added

If the attachment is an image file that can be displayed inline (e.g., a JPG or PNG file) then the image will be displayed along with the body text of the announcement. However, please note that when the announcement is emailed, the image will not be included in the body of the email – it will only be viewable when viewing the announcement in the Ultra course.

Response 15. “To be able to find contact details of students enrolled on the module site. This was really useful on the old NILE sites.”

Reply to 15: The ‘Class register’ in Ultra courses contains details of all the students enrolled on the course. Selecting the student from the class register opens a side panel which contains more information about the student, including their email address, which is visible under the account information section.

• Accessing the class register

Response 16. “To be able to have a subject NILE site not linked to a specific module or year, in order to communicate across the subject area.”

Reply to 16: As well as module-level NILE courses, all programmes also have their own programme-level NILE course, which contains all students from all years studying the subject.

Response 17. “The option to have multiple submissions for group assessments.”

Response 18. “Group assessment multiple submissions.”

Reply to 17 & 18: Following recent upgrades, it is now possible to allow multiple submissions for group assessments when using Blackboard Ultra assignments.

Response 19. “Feedback on students’ individual test questions.”

Response 20. “The ability to do short answer questions – so with the Original site we could create a question, the students could attempt and answer and then after they submit we could provide a model answer- it was a quick and effective way to create a mock exam.

Reply to 19 & 20: Automatic feedback for both the correct and incorrect answers can now be included on a number of types of computer-marked test questions, including true/false, multiple choice, multiple option, fill in the blank, matching question, calculated formula, and calculated numeric. Students can currently answer short answer or essay questions in Ultra tests, but it is not possible to provide automatic feedback or model answers for this question type. However, Blackboard are aware that this functionality needs to be included in Ultra and have announced that the model answer question type is in development and will be included in a future release in approximately three to six months’ time.

Response 21. “The ability to send reminders to specific people about overdue assignments …”

Reply to 21: The ‘Email non-submitters’ function in Turnitin assignments is, unfortunately, now no longer available in either Original or Ultra courses due to a change in the way that Turnitin is integrated with Blackboard. However, Blackboard are planning to implement a number of improvements to the messaging tool in Ultra courses, including the ability to send messages (via email) to non-submitters. The improvements to the messaging tool are planned for inclusion in upgrades in three to six months’ time.

Response 22. “Remove a student preview – at the moment we test the site and then we are unable to remove the student preview ‘student’, so they stay on the NILE site and show up as late or not submitted.”

Reply to 22: Following a recent upgrade, this is now possible to do in Ultra courses. When exiting the student preview, staff will be given the option of keeping the student preview user, or of completely deleting it.

• Exiting student preview

Response 23. “The ability to attach feedback or a mark sheet to a submission for e.g., a dissertation or an oral presentation. This has vanished from the old NILE sites and this is problematic. We used to be able to attach this in the Grade Centre [in Original courses].”

Reply to 23: When using Turnitin in Ultra courses it is not possible to attach an external document to the feedback. However, it is possible to do this with Blackboard Ultra assignments. Blackboard Ultra assignments can be used effectively for oral presentations, as the offline submission option means that a Blackboard Ultra assignment can be used even though students are not submitting any work. For more about this particular workflow, please see Ultra Workflow 5: Performance, Presentation, Viva, Artefact.

While Blackboard Ultra assignments currently do not allow for submitted work to be checked for matching text (as would be needed for a dissertation or other text-based assignment), Blackboard and Turnitin are working on an integration that will allow work submitted to a Blackboard Ultra assignment to be checked for matching text using Turnitin. This will create a ‘best of both worlds’ situation in which the grading and feedback tools in Blackboard Ultra assignments can be used (including the ability to upload external documents as part of the feedback), while also being able to check students’ work for matching text using Turnitin. This feature is scheduled for release in September 2023.

Response 24. “Grading notes. Vital for moderation & external examiners.”

Response 25. Private area for moderation / second markers comments. We do not usually enable students to see both markers’ comments, but a combined version. There is currently nowhere on Ultra to save second markers or moderators comments.

Reply to 24 & 25: The process of recording comments about the grading process, including internal moderation notes, is necessarily different in Ultra courses to the process used in Original courses. In order to enable staff to privately upload and store documents and information related to grading and moderation, each Ultra course has its own hidden folder called ‘Grading, feedback, and verification’ and this can be used to store all documents relating to assessment moderation.

• Grading, feedback and verification folder in Ultra courses

More details about this process can be found on our Grading, feedback, and verification processes in NILE page.

More information

As ever, please get in touch with your learning technologist if you would like any more information about any of the features discussed in this blog post.

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