Following up on our recent post, ‘What do UON staff think about Blackboard Ultra?‘, staff who have designed, built and taught students on Ultra courses shared their thoughts with us about the work involved in creating Ultra courses.
In order to better understand this issue, we asked UON staff piloting Ultra courses the following question:
“If you were discussing Ultra with a colleague, what would you advise them on the following two matters:
- How much time would you suggest they put aside for training and getting up-to-speed with Ultra?
- How much time would you suggest they put aside to put their first Ultra course together, assuming that they had already got the static content items (PPTs, PDFs, videos, etc.) they needed already prepared?”
This question was put to all members of staff piloting Ultra courses, and eight responses were received (FAST=4; FBL=1; FHES=3). Of the eight members of staff who responded: one was teaching a 20 credit level 4 module; one was teaching a 20 credit level 4 module and a 10 credit level 5 module; one was teaching a 20 credit level 5 module; two were teaching 20 credit level 6 modules; one was teaching a 40 credit level 6 module; and two were teaching 30 credit level 7 modules.
The responses to the first question varied, with suggestions ranging from 2 to 3 hours, to 4 to 5 hours, and up to 2 days.
As can be seen from the chart below, the responses to the second question varied very widely; however, both the median and mean averages are very close at 3.25 and 3.29 days respectively. Interestingly, there was no correlation between the credit value of the module and amount of time taken to put together one’s first Ultra course. Respondents 1, 5, 7 and 8 (who chose the most and the least amounts of time) were all teaching 20 credit undergraduate modules.
Please note that the qualitative responses from staff are in many cases considerably more nuanced than the simple quantitative figures presented here in the findings, and in some cases a judgement has been made as to the best single figure to represent a respondent’s views
Given the available evidence, it is suggested that staff may need to spend the following amount of time training, planning, and putting together their Ultra courses.
- Approximately 1 day Ultra training (including Ultra training with a learning technologist, and spending time on one one’s own getting used to Ultra)
- Between 3 and 3.5 days to plan out and put together the first Ultra course
- Between 2 and 2.5 days to plan out and put together subsequent Ultra courses
The following timescales do not take account of the amount of time it takes to prepare, create and update teaching materials and other static content (e.g., PowerPoints, videos, etc.)
Where staff are transferring extant Original courses to Ultra, rather than working on a brand new module, this may be a good opportunity to consider a redesign of the NILE site. Some staff have reported that the Original to Ultra process presented a good opportunity to do this. Additionally, these staff also reported that incorporating a redesign made the task of rebuilding their Original courses in Ultra a more worthwhile experience, and that subsequently their Ultra courses were better than their Original courses. Support for a NILE site redesign is available from the Learning Designers (LD@northampton.ac.uk).
Because it won’t be possible to automatically convert Original courses to Ultra, Ultra development courses will be created for all modules at least six months before they are required for first teaching.
Foundation and Level 4 Ultra courses for first teaching in September 2021 are available now.
To enrol on the Ultra development course for your module, please use the Enrol as a Tutor on your Modules tool in NILE.
The ID and name of your module will be in the format: Course ID = ABC1234_ULTRA, Course Name = ABC1234 Ultra Development Course.
Please note that these Ultra development courses are not the final versions of the courses that you will be using for teaching. The actual courses that your students will be enrolled on and which are synchronised with the Student Records System will be created later in the year (usually late May, early June). These Ultra development courses are intended for staff who would like to spend time slowly building their courses over many months, rather than waiting until June to begin the process. If you build your module using an Ultra development course you will need to copy it across later in the year into the course that your students are enrolled on; however, this is a quick and easy process. Our suggestion is that these Ultra development courses are best used as a place to structure, develop and build your module content and activities. Once this is complete, you can add assessment submission points, etc., into the final version of your course later in the year.
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.
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.
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
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:
What is UON Ultra?
UON Ultra is a four-year project to migrate the University’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), NILE, from Blackboard Learn Original (hereafter Original) to Blackboard Learn Ultra (hereafter Ultra). The purpose of moving from Original to Ultra is to ensure that the University is using a modern VLE that is intuitive, mobile friendly, device agnostic, responsive, and accessible: i.e., a VLE that best supports our students and our mode of teaching, and which works equally well regardless of whether it is accessed via a desktop, laptop, iPad, etc., or smartphone.
Who will the project impact?
Original is the University’s digital campus and has been used at Northampton since 2002. Original is embedded in all aspects of teaching and learning at the University: it is where online teaching and learning takes place; where online learning activities are engaged in; where teaching and learning materials are made available to students; and, since 2012, is where almost all students’ assignments are submitted, and where students receive their assignment grades and feedback. The project will therefore impact all University students and all academic staff at the University and at partner institutions.
Who are the project delivery team?
UON Ultra will be delivered by the Learning Technology Team, in conjunction with academic staff from across the faculties.
What are the key dates and milestones for the project?
UON Ultra will be delivered in four discrete phases over four years, starting in October 2019 and ending in September 2023. The delivery timescale has been chosen and approved by UMT to ensure minimal impact to students who are used to Original, and to allow staff as much time as possible to get used to working with Ultra.
Phase one – 2019/20
• October to December 2019: Blackboard Original Managed Hosting (MH) to Software as a Service (SaaS) migration planning and testing.
• December 2019: Migrate all Original environments (Production, Staging, Test) from MH to SaaS.
• January 2020: Upgrade Original to Ultra Base Navigation (UBN) on Test.
• February 2020: Design and deliver pilot course EDUM129 via Ultra on Test.
• May 2020: Upgrade Original to UBN on Staging.
• June 2020: Upgrade Original UBN on Production.
• June to September 2020: Recruit participants to Ultra pilot project and design modules (approx. 10) for Ultra delivery from September 2020.
Phase two – 2020/21
• September 2020: First teaching of pilot Ultra modules.
• September 2020: Creation of test Ultra courses for all Level 4 modules.
• From September 2020: Ultra training for academic staff. Subject areas to receive bespoke training from their learning technologist.
• September 2020 to August 2021: Design of level 4 Ultra courses by academic staff (with support from the Learning Technology Team).
Phase three – 2021/22
• September 2021: First teaching of all Level 4 modules via Ultra.
• September 2021: Creation of test Ultra courses for all Level 5 modules.
• From September 2021: Continuation of Ultra training for academic staff. Subject areas to receive bespoke training from their learning technologist.
• September 2021 to August 2022: Design of level 5 Ultra courses by academic staff (with support from the Learning Technology Team).
Phase four – 2022/23
• September 2022: First teaching of all Level 5 modules via Ultra.
• September 2022: Creation of test Ultra courses for all Level 6/7/8 modules.
• September 2022 to August 2023: Continuation of Ultra training for academic staff. Subject areas to receive bespoke training from their learning technologist.
• September 2022 to August 2023: Design of level 6/7/8 Ultra courses by academic staff (with support from the Learning Technology Team).
• September 2023: First teaching of all Level 6, 7 and 8 modules via Ultra.
Where can I find out more about Ultra?
The Learning Technology Team will, of course, provide plenty of bespoke training on Ultra from September 2020 onwards, but Blackboard have also created training and support materials about Ultra which you can access.
Blackboard’s LearnUltra site contains a lot of information about Ultra and explains the benefits of using it: https://learnultra.blackboard.com/
Blackboard Ultra Training Videos: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLontYaReEU1tCbsCDP-u_wsKdkDBegIhH
If you have any questions about the UON Ultra project, please contact the Head of Learning Technology, Rob Howe, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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