Last week all of the “movers and shakers” from the world of Blackboard descended on Washington DC for the annual Bb World conference. This is the time when Blackboard announces their plans for the coming year, and their future direction, as well as many presentations from within the Blackboard community to share ideas and good practice.
This year some of the key sessions were streamed live, and recorded, meaning that despite our budgets not quite stretching to a trip to DC, we were able to see the information first-hand, and take part in the conversation.
The first session was the keynote, presented by Jay Bhatt, CEO of Blackboard. The presentation started by looking at the lives of some young people, a student from K12 (the American school system – Kindergarten to 12th Grade), and then an HE student. In each case Jay highlighted events during the student’s day, and aligned them to Blackboard products which could be used for each task; although a little contrived, the aim was to show the wide range of products now available from Blackboard, with the intention to integrate them more in the future, instead of seeing them as many disparate products.
Jay then had support from his team, who looked at a new mobile product for parents in the K12 market, but the area with more interest to us is the new Blackboard user interface (UI), entitled Ultra. The entire Blackboard UI is being redesigned from the ground up, to modernise the look and feel, as well as improve workflows (the number of clicks), and make the system compatible with the range of devices and screen sizes which are now used without the need to use an app. The Ultra project has been mentioned at the last two Bb World events, so everyone was very keen to see the developments.
Jay explained that the first people to see the new Ultra interface would be SaaS (Software as a Service) clients. This is a new offering; we are currently self-hosted (meaning our Blackboard system is hosted in the college), but we are looking to move to Managed Hosting (where Blackboard looks after the back end servers). In the SaaS model, clients are given user accounts on a larger on-line system, shared with other users.
The general feeling after the keynote was that the Ultra UI does look good, but details of exactly when, and how, we would be able to benefit from this weren’t plentiful. Therefore, attending a second session, live, presented by Jim Chalex, Senior Director of Product Management, provided much more specific details. Previous demonstrations had used a mock-up of the new user interface, but Jim’s session used a real Blackboard system with Ultra enabled.
The new user interface is clean, clear, and in line with modern web design. The demonstration of dragging and dropping files directly to a course was very promising, whilst the integration with Microsoft One Drive has the potential to be very useful for us. The Grade Centre has benefited from a major redesign, with much improved reporting data to allow instructors to use performance and activity data to identify students who may be at risk.
The all important question of when will self-hosted clients have access to Ultra was address; Jim explained that Ultra requires a cloud-based architecture, and is currently only available to SaaS clients, but Blackboard are investigating how to deploy these updates to self-hosted clients. He also confirmed that development of the existing Blackboard system, Learn 9.1, will continue, with releases every six months.
The tools from 9.1 are being transferred into the Ultra interface one-by-one; a core list has been completed, but by the time we are in a position to move to Ultra, the standard list of tools which we are familiar with, should be available.
In conclusion the new Ultra UI looks very promising, and it was reassuring to see much more of the system in a live demonstration instead of just a mock-up. However, it’s clear that we won’t be moving to this straight away, although the TEL Team will carefully monitor the situation, and as once details of upgrade paths for self hosted and managed hosted clients are announced we will investigate how we can bring these exciting developments to City College Norwich.
For an another view of Bb World, you may be interested in Dr Malcolm Murray’s excellent post.