When Ultra was first introduced at UMBC in SP2018, four adventurous faculty opted to use a newly redesigned Blackboard course interface in their courses. Ultra represented a new phase of Blackboard’s development, focusing on student success, responsive design, mobile friendliness, and embedded analytics. Nearly three years later, more than 300 faculty now use Ultra at UMBC across more than 1200 courses throughout the pandemic. Both students and faculty alike praise Ultra’s interface and usability.
Our Ultra adoption is around 40% of the total active Blackboard courses, with most faculty adoption occurring before the pandemic and a substantial surge occuring during the pandemic. A recent plateau in adoption suggested there might be some challenges we needed to confront with Ultra’s progress and discussions to consider. Before we can get to that point, we need to reflect on the last year of teaching online and a longer time of teaching with Ultra.
12 Months of Ultra Updates
Every month, our Blackboard site gets the latest updates, thanks to our cloud hosting. Given the broad scope that Ultra presents to courses, these updates may seem slower when released on a monthly cadence. However, the list of features and enhancements is quite substantial. Key highlights include conditional release of content by groups, new text formatting options including HTML blocks, batch enrolling students into groups, qualitative peer assessments, passcode protecting tests and test feedback/grade release, and 25 videos per page in Collaborate. With the May release, faculty can set up a drop grades rule in the Ultra gradebook.
Prioritizing What’s Needed for Ultra
Now that we know what's been added to Ultra, let's look at what we're still looking to enhance. In FA2019, we gathered 75+ of the requested features and functionality for Ultra and shared this critical information with Blackboard. In SP2021, we sent a survey to all faculty teaching Ultra to prioritize the key features by functional area. The Ultra prioritization survey helped us understand UMBC’s faculty priorities and gave Bb’s developers a strong framework for how our faculty used Ultra for teaching.
Figure 1: Summarizing Ultra tool needs: Shifting priorities between SP/FA2019 and SP2021. We looked at faculty feedback on Ultra from SP2019/FA2019 and FA2020 to compare priorities, noting that key functional areas have shifted. Whereas faculty once placed group management as a major concern in Ultra’s early development, grading and assessment are now at the top of the list.
Where is Ultra Going Next?
Last month, Wade Fields, product manager for Ultra’s development team, met with UMBC’s Ultra Faculty Ambassadors to share details about Ultra’s roadmap. The future of Ultra is planned in several phases, and it’s important to note that software development can change rapidly due to client feedback and other circumstances (like a pandemic). With that in mind, we can share these planned items, many of which are high priority items for our faculty.
Throughout SU2021, Blackboard anticipates releasing rubric feedback by criteria, right-to-left alignment for the content editor, audio/video recording support for course announcements, tables for the content editor, achievement support, and gradebook filtering by groups and other criteria. In the third quarter of 2021, Blackboard plans several exciting enhancements that align to our faculty priorities including point-based rubrics; assignment submission receipts for students; and personal pronouns and pronunciation name guides for all users.
On the longer term roadmap, Blackboard seeks to improve grading and assessment workflows including support for test display and continues to research improvements to the notification and messaging system. Goals include enhancing the course landing page, learning modules, accommodations, and offering deeper integrations for Google and Microsoft.
What Happens Next?
When asked, 56% of UMBC’s Ultra Faculty Ambassadors said they were satisfied that the proposed feature development of Ultra would support their upcoming teaching, and 44% were encouraged by the roadmap enough to keep watching and using Ultra for next year. However, Instructional Technology continues to track Ultra’s monthly development and engage Blackboard developers in conversations about essential features.
Figure 2: Ultra Feature Tracker. Currently Ultra aligns with about 76% of Original’s features, including those in research and development.
Transparency with the UMBC community is an essential part of the Ultra adoption process. Collecting feedback every semester, including the upcoming surveys for both faculty and students, is an essential part of our ongoing evaluation and project tracking. Please follow this myUMBC group for continued updates about Ultra.
As always, if you have any questions about teaching, learning, and technology, please consider the following options:
Request a consult with instructional technology staff
By: Mariann Hawken