Learning Management Systems

Blackboard Unveils "Ultra Experience"

The world's largest ed tech company has updated its flagship learning management system with two new ways to work with it. Blackboard, which produces Blackboard Learn 9.1, has gone into "general availability" with the new "Ultra Experience." It has also announced considerable enhancements to 9.1, provided in what it is now calling the "Original Experience." While the two experiences share many similarities, they differ in how they're delivered to the customers and in how frequently updates will be provided.

The news came during Blackboard's annual user conference, BbWorld 16, taking place this week in Las Vegas.

While Learn with the Ultra Experience will only be available in a software-as-a-service model, hosted in the cloud on Amazon Web Services, customers can run Original on premise, in a managed hosting model with Blackboard, or as SaaS on AWS.

"We talk about it as one-two-three," explained Katie Blot, Blackboard's senior vice president of global strategy, marketing and business line management. "It's one Learn. It has two experiences. And it has three deployment methods."

The company first announced the work leading to Ultra at last year's conference with the intent of rethinking how its LMS could better serve students with a more contemporary interface, as well as how to help faculty who were new to the software and could be overwhelmed by the extensive feature set of Learn.

"Ultra for us first and foremost is a very simple design aesthetic that is incredibly intuitive and modern, such that anybody can go in and be able to easily figure out how to build out and use courses," said Blot. For example, Ultra follows a mobile-first design model. When the LMS is called up on a smartphone or tablet vs. a laptop, it automatically responds to changes in screen size by adapting the design for better usability.

Also, the new experience adds workstreams to Learn, moving away from the course structure of the typical LMS and allowing students to navigate across courses and other school activities that aren't a part of their formal classes.

"Students told us, 'I want to come in and know what's new for me: Did grades get posted? Did a new assignment get posted? What do I need to do in the next three days?'" said Blot. That stream exposes what is happening academically and socially, and then the student can drill into the program to take action on each activity. For example, if a particular course requires the student to make one original discussion forum post and four add-ons to others' posts, when a new post shows up, the student can simply click on it and be taken right to the spot where he or she can add a post as well. "In the old world, I'd go into my economics course, and I would see what's happening there, and then I would go into the discussion board and I would look for new posts. This just makes it really easy for students to get to the things that they need to," Blot explained

Workstreams also work for faculty, she noted. They can view their streams to see what activities they need to respond to, such as grading assignments or responding to alerts, and then go right into the appropriate part of the program to take action.

Blackboard Learn with the Original Experience has also been pushed forward. Enhancements there address competency-based education needs, add updates in accessibility and use a new integration layer to simplify application integration with other systems. Regarding that latter feature, the use of the REST API, originally planned for Ultra, is being added to Original, said Blot, for several reasons: "It's much more modern. It's easier to get people who can code integration layers with REST. It's less intrusive to the application itself. It's a great way to go."

Original also adds usability features drawn from Ultra, she said, such as the mobile responsiveness.

Institutions won't have to choose one or the other experience. "It's all one platform," Blot emphasized. "Schools don't have two LMSes. They have one Learn, and they're able to experience it in two ways. We've done a lot of work to make sure that 'optionality' exists so institutions can enable both experiences." That dual-experience decision can be done at multiple levels, including down to the department or course level.

One area of difference between the two experiences will be in how updates are handled. Original will continue with its twice-yearly updates taking place in spring and fall. For the Ultra experience, schools will have two options. They may choose to get a "continuous release," Blot said, which will be rolled out every two weeks and will include maintenance and bug fixes as well as new features. Or they can opt to take the bug fixes on the more frequent schedule and roll out updates and enhancements twice each year.

Blot said a first, unnamed K-12 customer has already deployed Ultra. "We didn't want to make it generally available until we had all the core features and functions that make it necessary to manage a course and an online experience," she noted. Because this school was a "new user," it didn't need all of those features, "so they just started to use it."

Teachers interested in trying Blackboard Learn Ultra can sign up for the preview on the Blackboard site. The company said current Blackboard Learn customers in SaaS environments have the option to enable the Ultra experience whenever they are ready to begin using it.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.