I’m pleased to announce the launch of our Blackboard Learn with the Ultra experience Educator Preview. We’re presenting a beta version of the Ultra experience to anyone who would like to use it, so you can get a sense for how it works. We’ve been working on this for a long time, and we’re excited to hear your thoughts about how this will fit into your teaching and learning environment. Here’s some of what you’ll find inside of the Blackboard Learn with the Ultra experience Educator Preview.

Courses

When you create an account, you’ll find yourself on the Course Timeline. This visualization helps students understand their historic progress, and instructors can see their previous courses. From the Timeline, you can enter a specific course. We’ve set up some sample courses for you to play with. When you open a course, you’ll see either a classic course in the style that you might be familiar with, or the new Ultra course.


An Ultra course is structured around a course outline. Content is presented in a simple hierarchical list, and all content is presented in a similar way and in a central location. The outline contains your presentations, documents, assignments, discussions, and external content packages or tools. You can easily rearrange content, show or hide content from your students, or schedule content to appear on certain dates.

 

Assignments


Assignments are accessed from within the context of the Course Outline, so you can position them in spatial proximity to related lectures, readings, and presentations. An assignment is a blank canvas; you can add written content, imagery, files, and videos to the assignment, and provide instructions for your students.

 

Grading


You can view assignment submissions and assign grades in the Gradebook. Here you can see all of your assignments in either a list or a grid view. The list provides an easy way to view specific contributions from students, while the grid provides a fast way to grade submissions in bulk. By making an assignment a Group Assignment, students can work on the assignment together; when they submit it, you can grade all students at once and either assign them all a single grade or assign individual grades to individual students.

 

Discussions


Like Assignments, discussion threads appear within the context of the Course Outline. These threads create room for lively conversation about a topic you’ve covered in class. Large classes can generate lots of rich content, and so we’ve created a super simple way to navigate to the contributions from a single participant, or to follow the structure of a conversation. If participation counts for credit, you can mark the discussion as a graded discussion. When you grade the discussion, you can isolate contributions from a specific student without losing the context of the thread, and easily assign grades, add comments for students, and post grades. And when grades are posted, students will receive notification of the new grades in their Activity Stream.

 

Activity Stream


The Activity Stream provides a changing view of how students and teachers are learning, and calls out important deadlines, upcoming events, and announcements. We remind students of upcoming due dates for assignments, and let them know when new discussion posts or messages have been posted. Instructors receive notifications when there are new submissions to grade. We’ve also woven analytics into areas like the Activity Stream. Instructors will receive a notification when students haven’t visited the course frequently or recently, or when particular students need help. Students will receive a nudge when they are tracking towards poor performance.

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You can do a lot with Blackboard Learn with the Ultra experience, but I want to describe a specific approach we’ve taken to the product with regard to features: selectivity and restraint. In the context of education, I feel that products should be largely invisible. A product is there to support a larger purpose – learning. Each new feature introduces new complexity, and that complexity makes the product harder to use. And when the product is harder to use, the product isn’t invisible – it’s annoying. Somewhat counterintuitively, a product that does less is more powerful.

Jim Chalex, Sr. Director of Product Management for Blackboard Learn, told me that “we know from listening to instructors and students that they crave simplicity and efficiency. The Ultra experience for Blackboard Learn emphasizes both of these qualities to help make teaching and learning online faster, easier, and more delightful than ever.” Matt Franks, who has been leading the design strategy of the Ultra experience, added that “Like most LMS providers, Blackboard has historically struggled to provide simple user interfaces with a minimal presence in the classroom. The Ultra product is our first web-based release in a strategy that seeks to positively impact the student’s academic journey through simplified product and service experiences. We want to help students and faculty focus on educational outcomes rather than the software they are using to achieve them.”

Do less; this runs against the culture of nearly every educational technology company in the world, including – until recently – ours. And you can imagine the rich and spirited debates we’ve had internally about a shift towards power through simplicity. But those collaborative debates and the hard work from our product teams have produced great results that support the evolving nature of education. We hope you enjoy the simplicity of the Ultra experience for Blackboard Learn, the clean, new design language, the integrated workflows, and our focus on teaching and learning.

We invite you to try the educator preview. Kick the tires, and explore how the Ultra experience can support you in your job. We’re proud of what the team has accomplished; please comment below and let us know your reactions to this new product design strategy and philosophy.

Give Blackboard Learn with the Ultra experience a test drive.

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