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Introduction

During the autumn 20/21 term, nine members of academic staff across all three University faculties taught 305 students on twelve Blackboard Learn Ultra modules (FAST=7; FBL=1; FHES=4). During December 2020 and January 2021, these academics shared their thoughts about Ultra with us, and this blog post presents a summary of the main findings from UON staff who have piloted Ultra with their students.

N.B. For clarification, throughout this post ‘Ultra’ refers to the new Blackboard Learn Ultra courses, whereas ‘Original’ refers to the original Blackboard Learn courses (i.e., Blackboard Learn version 9.1 courses) that UON staff have been using for many years.

Main findings

1. Once they had taken the time to get used to Ultra, the majority of staff were generally positive about it, and particularly liked its more modern look-and-feel, referring to it as being simple, clean, smart, slick, bright, and neat. However, for a very small number of staff this simpler, cleaner appearance and the lack of course customisation options was found to be bland and visually uninspiring.

2. In most cases staff noted that it did take quite some time to become familiar and comfortable with the new Ultra interface, and that a reasonable amount of thinking, experimenting and planning time was necessary to work out how to use Ultra and get the best from it.

3. As well as the time taken to get used to Ultra, and to consider how to design their Ultra courses, most members of staff reported the need to spend more time than usual putting their Ultra courses together; i.e., uploading content, and creating online activities, etc. Some staff members found this process too slow, but even those who found the process daunting also noted that it was also a good opportunity to re-evaluate their courses. As this was their first time putting an Ultra course together, most staff members reported some frustrations getting used to Ultra, or with the limitations of Ultra, but for the most part there was the sense that once they had become used to Ultra, it was not difficult to work with.

4. Many members of staff noted a loss of minor functionality with Ultra when comparing it with Original. However, with the exception of a limitation with the journal tool (which has subsequently been updated by Blackboard) the missing functionality usually refers to relatively minor issues (such as the inability to create tables in the text editor, some clumsiness with the messaging tool, difficulty using drag-and-drop function to move content around within the course, or the lack of ability to copy content within a course) which are likely to be remedied in future upgrades. In some cases, the missing functionality reported was actually there, but was difficult to find. Regarding positive comments about Ultra functionality, the Ultra discussion boards were noted as a particularly good tool. Overall, while there were concerns about Ultra’s functionality, there were no comments suggesting that Ultra was unfit for purpose, or unusable/unsuitable for teaching and learning.

5. Not all staff piloting Ultra had assessed student work in their Ultra course at the time they gave feedback, but those who had had mixed comments about the process: some had found it straightforward and intuitive, but others had found difficult and cumbersome.

6. Staff noted no problems with their students using Ultra, and no negative comments from students about Ultra – generally the sense was that students were okay with it, had adjusted to it, and were just getting on with it. One member of staff noted positive comments from their students about Ultra being easier to navigate that Original, better to look at, and displaying well on a mobile device.

7. While most staff were positive (and often very positive) about Ultra, there were a few comments which indicated that some staff were concerned about it not being as functional as Original, and their impression was that while it was a good tool, and one that they would happy use in the future, it was not quite ready yet. However, other staff, even where they noted less functionality with Ultra, did not find this to be especially problematic. Overall, almost all respondents seemed happy with the idea of using Ultra for teaching and learning either immediately, or after a little more development.

8. In terms of rolling out Ultra across all courses at the University, while some staff liked the idea of doing it all at once for all modules, most considered a three-year phased roll-out to be the most prudent and most reasonable option for both staff and students. Nevertheless, quite a number of staff piloting Ultra noted that it was going to be a lot of work for all staff to make the transition to Ultra, especially for those staff who are module leaders and who would be rebuilding their Original courses in Ultra.

Summary

The findings strongly suggest that the University made the correct decision in continuing to use Blackboard as its VLE provider and was right to begin the process of adopting Blackboard Ultra courses. The findings did not suggest any reason to abandon the UON Ultra adoption project or to stick with Original courses for the foreseeable future.

Overall, the findings showed a very good level of support for Ultra, and, for the most part, a preference for Ultra over Original. The main concerns with Ultra were about: i) the time it would take for staff to get used to working with Ultra; ii) the time it would take to rebuild Original courses in Ultra, and; iii) that currently Ultra does not completely match the functionality of Original.

Next steps and future developments

• The University Management Team (UMT) originally stated the University’s commitment to Ultra at a meeting on the 5th of May, 2020, and to a three-year phased roll-out of Ultra courses across the University beginning in September 2021. At a meeting on the 26th of January, 2021, UMT confirmed its ongoing commitment to Ultra and to the Ultra adoption timescales. You can view the Ultra course adoption plan here: https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/staff/nile-guides/blackboard-ultra-faqs#s-lg-box-15342243

• In order to assist staff, and hopefully to reduce the amount of time it takes staff to transition their modules from Original to Ultra, the Learning Technology Team have designed and built two complete Ultra courses as examples of what Ultra courses could look like. Both courses contain the same content, but one is set out thematically, and the other on a week-by-week structure. You can access these courses as explained here: https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/staff/nile-guides/blackboard-ultra-faqs#s-lg-box-15341315

• The functionality of Ultra is improving all the time, and we have shared the Ultra findings from UON staff with Blackboard, who are now using it to help shape future developments of Ultra. You can find out more about the latest developments with Ultra here: https://www.blackboard.com/learnultra/whats-new-learn-ultra

Find out more

You can find out more about the University of Northampton’s move to Blackboard Learn Ultra at: https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/staff/nile-guides/blackboard-ultra

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During 2020 Mark decided to make a radical change in his teaching through removal of PowerPoint in his synchronous teaching. He still use some pre-recorded presentations, but his ‘live’ teaching, both face-to-face and online, have now used NILE(Blackboard Learn), not PowerPoint.

In this guest Learntech posting, Mark shares some of his hints and tips on ‘life without PowerPoint’.

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The core technology underpinning NILE, known as Blackboard Learn, is changing. This will have a major impact across the University as NILE courses are updated to Blackboard Learn Ultra over the next three academic years, starting with Level 4 and Foundation courses for teaching beginning in the 2021/22 academic year.

Blackboard Learn Ultra is a modern, responsive VLE, that has been designed to work across the widest range of devices. While the original version of Blackboard Learn was, and in many respects still is, a highly functional and well-engineered VLE, it does not have the same ability to work seamlessly across the full range of devices that our students now expect. Blackboard Learn Ultra is Blackboard’s answer to the challenges posed by today’s students, the majority of whom now access the VLE from a mobile device.

The Ultra experience is very different to the Original experience. From a design point of view it has a simpler, more modern and less cluttered look-and-feel. And because it has been designed with mobile devices in mind, it flows and responds well on smaller screens, whilst giving users a similar experience regardless of whether it is accessed on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

We have titled the project to move NILE from Blackboard Learn Original to Blackboard Learn Ultra ‘UON Ultra’, and you can find out more about the project and the timescales here:

https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/staff/nile-guides/blackboard-ultra

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In addition to the excellent range of resources which are available for students to help with NILE, a new Organisational resource has just been released on the platform for those who are new to NILE. This 20 minute mini-course will provide a basic introduction to NILE including navigation and useful tools such as the calendar, activity stream and the Blackboard app.

The course will supplement information and resources provided by tutors and provide a springboard into NILE usage.

New students will be able to view the course by clicking onto the Organisations link after logging into NILE and then click onto the link for “Student Introduction to NILE”:

It is then possible to access all the material in the course. A printable / downloadable confirmation page is available for those who complete all materials.

Staff wishing to preview the material for their own use/reference should follow the guidance for enrolling on Organisations (click on “Add Organisation to Workload”) and search for “Stu-Intro-NILE-staffview”

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As well as having a NILE course for each of your modules, your programme has its own NILE course too. For the 20/21 academic year we have been working with colleagues in IT Services to make improvements to the way that programme courses are created in NILE, which will make the process of finding and using programme courses much easier.

During the 19/20 academic year, 3,410 programme courses were created in NILE. Of these, only 6% were actually used, and the story is the same in previous academic years. The reason for this apparent low take up of programme courses is actually due to the way that NILE automatically creates a large number of programme course variations based around year and mode of study. For example, when trying to find the 19/20 programme course for History, you’ll be faced with the following list:

  • CBAAHISTY-1920: 19/20 BA History
  • CBAAHISTY-1FT-1920: 19/20 BA History Stage 1 FT
  • CBAAHISTY-1PT-1920: 19/20 BA History Stage 1 PT
  • CBAAHISTY-2FT-1920: 19/20 BA History Stage 2 FT
  • CBAAHISTY-2PT-1920: 19/20 BA History Stage 2 PT
  • CBAAHISTY-3FT-1920: 19/20 BA History Stage 3 FT
  • CBAAHISTY-3PT-1920: 19/20 BA History Stage 3 PT
  • SUBHIST-1920: 19/20 History

The end result here is that it is often difficult to know which of these programme courses is the best one to use. Additionally, the most requested type of programme course, the one with all of your students on it, is not in the above list because it is not automatically created; rather it has to be generated manually via a multiple programme course merge.

The good news is that earlier in the year, SEC (Student Experience Committee) approved a proposal to improve and simplify the creation of programme courses in NILE, the result being that your programme now has only one NILE course, and all of your students are automatically enrolled on it.

To return to the above example, there is now only one programme course in NILE for History this academic year.

  • CBAAHISTY-2021: 20/21 BA History

This course contains single and joint honours students; first, second and third year students; and full-time and part-time students: in fact, anybody and everybody studying History at UON during the 20/21 academic year.

But this doesn’t mean that programme courses now have to be one-size-fits-all affairs. While you can use these courses to communicate easily with and create activities and resources for all your students at once, you can also use the groups and adaptive release tools in Blackboard to communicate with and create activities and resources for specific groups of students.

The only other programme courses created in NILE for 20/21 are one for all Joint Honours students (CCH-2021) and one for all Foundation Study Framework students (CFSF-2021).

If you have any questions about finding and using your 20/21 programme course, or about how to set up groups in your course and release content to or communicate with specific groups of students, please do get in touch with your learning technologist.

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In addition to the excellent support and training provided by your Learning Technologists there are also a range of sessions which are provided on a regular basis by Blackboard – the company behind the main product forming the NILE backbone. These sessions are normally free and you can catchup on recordings if you cannot attend the actual events.

Northampton does make a few customisations to the ‘out of the box’ product but where possible we do try to keep to the standard layouts which mean that the product training should still be relevant.

You should be aware when looking for training that we are using the Blackboard Learn Ultra Based navigation along with traditional courses. There are a limited number of Ultra Based courses also being piloted. The core communication product is Blackboard Collaborate.

Whilst Blackboard sessions run during regular time slots, they are also recorded and these are made available to all delegates who sign up – so don’t let the actual dates of the events put you off.

The sessions which may be of use are:

Understanding the Ultra Experience Series

Preparing for the Ultra Course View

Transitioning to remote instruction (From basic to advanced). Past recordings from these sessions are also available.

More events will be added to this list as they become relevant.

Please contact your Learning Technologist for more information and help.

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New Box View to Bb Annotate

At the end of June, staff will notice a change in the way that they annotate students’ essays and reports in the Blackboard Assignment tool. Many staff use Turnitin to mark essays and reports, etc., and this update does not affect Turnitin at all; however, staff using the Blackboard Assignment tool will want to familiarise themselves with this update.

At present, the annotation function in the Blackboard Assignment tool is provided by New Box View, and it looks like this:

At the end of June, Blackboard are replacing New Box View with Bb Annotate. Following this upgrade you will notice that the tool looks a little different, and you’ll find that the annotation options have been greatly improved:

If you are planning on using the Blackboard Assignment tool to provide feedback and grades to students from July 2020 onwards, please familiarise yourself with the new Bb Annotate tool. Full guidance is available at: https://help.blackboard.com/Learn/Instructor/Assignments/Grade_Assignments/Bb_Annotate

Notes about the migration from New Box View to Bb Annotate

  • All pre-existing annotations created through New Box View will be migrated and visible in Bb Annotate.
  • When a student or a member of staff accesses an annotated file during the migration, it will take a little bit longer to load but will be displayed in the new Bb Annotate viewer.
  • If a member of staff is actively annotating a file using New Box View during the migration, the file will not migrate to Bb Annotate until the member of staff has completed that session. Upon loading the submission file again, it will display in the Bb Annotate viewer.
  • Members of staff will be able to delete annotations as well as add new comments to any existing comment created using New Box View.

Supported file types in Bb Annotate

You can view and annotate these document types directly in the browser with Bb Annotate:

  • Microsoft Word (DOC, DOCX)
  • Microsoft PowerPoint (PPT, PPTX)
  • Microsoft Excel (XLS, XLSM, XLSX)
  • OpenOffice Documents (ODS, ODT, ODP)
  • Digital Images (JPEG, JPG, PNG, TIF, TIFF, TGA, BMP)
  • Medical Images (DICOM, DICM, DCM)
  • PDF
  • PSD
  • RTF
  • TXT
  • WPD

Help and support with Bb Annotate

Full guidance on using Bb Annotate is available at: https://help.blackboard.com/Learn/Instructor/Assignments/Grade_Assignments/Bb_Annotate

Staff can also get help and support with Bb Annotate from their learning technologist:
https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/staff/nile-help/who-is-my-learning-technologist

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New look-and-feel for the NILE homepage

June 2020 sees a new look-and-feel for the NILE homepage. While the new homepage is indeed radically different, NILE courses are entirely unaffected. You can read more about the new NILE homepage here:

What is the new NILE homepage for staff
https://askus.northampton.ac.uk/Learntech/faq/230369

What is the new NILE homepage for students
https://askus.northampton.ac.uk/Learntech/faq/230368

New NILE courses for the 20/21 academic year

New NILE courses for the 20/21 academic year will be available for use from the 2nd of June onwards. As usual, the new courses follow the standard template as set out in the NILE Design Standards, so you can create your courses afresh, or you can copy materials from your 19/20 courses into your 20/21 courses. To copy materials across, please follow very carefully our instructions about how to do this:

Bulk copying content between courses in NILE
https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/staff/nile-guides/blackboard-learn#s-lg-box-15196768

Full information about finding and setting up your new NILE courses can be found in our FAQ – How do I set up my new NILE course for the upcoming academic year?
https://askus.northampton.ac.uk/Learntech/faq/180655

There are no significant changes to the way that module courses have been created, however, there are major changes to the way that programme courses have been created.

Changes to NILE programme courses

Earlier this year the Student Experience Committee approved changes to the way that programme courses are created in NILE. For many years each programme has had a number of different programme course variations in NILE, which meant that for most programmes there were often eight different variations, and no single course that collected together all students on a programme. From this year onwards there is now a single programme course per programme per academic year, and this course has all students on it who are taking the programme (all years of study, full- and part-time, single and joint honours). This means that a single honours student will be enrolled on one programme course, and a joint honours will be enrolled on both of their programmes courses, plus the joint honours programme course. Foundation students will also have a single programme course for all foundation students.

NILE updates for anonymous marking

As anonymous marking becomes the new normal for the 20/21 academic year, changes in the integration between NILE and the Student Records System mean that you will no longer see students on your NILE courses who have transferred or withdrawn from your modules. The main effect of this is that you can now safely use Turnitin’s ‘Email non-submitters’ tool.

Additionally, and to assist with the process of anonymous marking, the Learning Technology Team have put together the following guides for staff and students:

Anonymous marking guide for staff:
https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/sage/turnitin_anonymous

Guidance for students submitting work anonymously
https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/sage/turnitin-submission/anonymous

Help and support with NILE

As ever, for help and support with any of the NILE tools, or simply to find out more about what NILE is and how the Learning Technology Team can help you, please see our website:
https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/

And do feel free to contact your learning technologist for advice and guidance about anything related to educational technology in general, or NILE in particular:
https://libguides.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/staff/nile-help/who-is-my-learning-technologist

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As part of our work improving and updating NILE, we are making some changes to the way that you log in to NILE, with the aim being to make accessing NILE both simpler and more secure.

You will still use your current University of Northampton username* (your student number, or staff ID) and password to login to NILE; these will not change. In fact, most of the changes will be made behind the scenes as we upgrade to the latest and most secure method of authentication, but there are one or two changes that you will notice.

NILE

Firstly, once you have logged in to the Student Hub or Staff Intranet** you will no longer have to log in to NILE again. Just click on the NILE link, and you’ll be taken directly into NILE without having to enter your username and password again.

Secondly, if you access NILE directly via nile.northampton.ac.uk, then for a limited time you’ll see that you have two login options. You’ll have the regular username and password option, but you now also have an option to use the new ‘Log in to NILE with your UON ID’ option. If you prefer to access NILE directly, rather than going via the Student Hub or the Staff Intranet, we encourage you to start using the new ‘Log in to NILE with your UON ID’ option.

Log in to NILE

When you use these new NILE login options, then when you come to log out of NILE you’ll see that you are presented with two choices: you can either log out of NILE only (which logs you out of NILE, but keeps you logged in to other University systems, including the Student Hub, Staff Intranet, and your University Office 365 and OneDrive accounts, etc); or you can securely log out of NILE and all University systems at the same time.


*Your University username will be in one of the following formats:

  • Students: this is your 8 digit UON student number;
  • University of Northampton Staff: this is your UON staff username, usually comprising your initial(s) and the first few characters of your last name;
  • Staff working at partner institutions: this is your ARMS account ID, and is an 8 digit number beginning 999.

**Please note that only University of Northampton staff can log into the Staff Intranet. Partner staff will always need to access NILE by going directly to nile.northampton.ac.uk

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NILE will be down for scheduled maintenance. Between the 28 December and 29 December you will be unable to login to NILE to access resources or submit any assessments online. Other University systems should not be impacted by this work. [Detailed information about the nature of the maintenance is shown at the bottom of this posting.]

If you were planning on making use of the Christmas vacation to get a lot of work done that involves NILE, please make sure that you log-in and download any resources that you need before Saturday 28 December. 

Students – If you are due to submit assignments during this time, please be assured that your deadline will be extended to reflect this downtime. Please check with your Module Leader for more information relating to assignment deadlines. 

If you have any questions about the NILE downtime, please contact Rob Howe, by emailing rob.howe@northampton.ac.uk 

Detailed information on the nature of the maintenance.

Blackboard is currently hosted with Managed hosting in Amsterdam. As part of updating contracts, there is a move of the physical hosting from Amsterdam to Amazon Webservices (AWS) in Frankfurt. There will be a full data migration from Saturday 28 December and then the NILE service will continue to be unavailable until Sunday 29 December for quality checks and to allow web services redirections to take place.  This blog will be updated if there are any changes to timescales.

The key benefits of this move will be:

  • Updating of all patches and fixes since August 2019.
  • Higher uptime (99.99%).
  • Continuous release which means less time needed for downtime during the year.
  • Quicker implementation of patches (Currently we have to take the service down to implement any patch or fix).
  • Features implemented quicker (Currently we only schedule major feature implementation once a year).
  • Ability to stage move to Blackboard Ultra – the latest release of Blackboard – with higher levels of accessibility and usability.

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