Photo Dr. Geoff Price, Director of Instructional Technology at Belmont University

Introducing a New Experience to Campus Community


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Oct 02, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

At Belmont University, a 128-year-old institution with over 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students located in Nashville, Tennessee, the Ultra experience for Blackboard Learn is available to all faculty, staff and students. The campus community is benefiting from a new user interface that is more personalized, proactive and intuitive.

Located two miles from downtown Nashville, Belmont University was founded in 1890 as a college for young women, and which now offers experiential, hands-on liberal arts and professional education to prepare students for 21st century careers.

At Belmont, the Department of Instructional Technology promotes the university’s commitment to providing an academically challenging education by supporting 11 colleges and over 850 faculty members, as they explore and design learning experiences that incorporate digital technology.

“We aim to equip faculty with the knowledge and skills needed to effectively and appropriately utilize technology in their instruction in order to maximize student learning,” explains Dr. Geoff Price, director of instructional technology.

“In conjunction with other strategic planning priorities, Belmont utilizes technology related to information dissemination, learning, instructional delivery and administrative practice to innovate for the benefit of students,” says Price.

In order to do so, they are enhancing how learners interact with content, the instructor, and other learners – both inside and outside of the traditional classroom. Their goal is to facilitate all three of these interactions through one central course delivery platform.

According to Price, Blackboard Learn is the only licensed and university-supported course delivery platform on campus. “All courses offered at the university have an associated Blackboard Learn course generated by the integration with our student information system.”

Recently, Belmont adopted new capabilities that allowed the institution to meet goals beyond course delivery, providing students, faculty, and staff with a comprehensive digital learning environment.

Blackboard Collaborate has become the standard for faculty and staff interviews. Departments are leveraging the capabilities of Organizations to offer training for staff and students. And our library staff is exploring the possibility of delivering resources directly to faculty and students via Content Collection,” Price notes.

In 2017, Belmont decided to enable the Ultra experience for Blackboard Learn, which includes the Ultra Base Navigation and gives professors the option to adopt the Ultra Course View. To make this possible, the university first changed their deployment method.

Migrating to SaaS Deployment

Belmont decided to migrate their Blackboard Learn deployment from managed-hosted to the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, in which the digital learning environment is hosted, delivered, and managed using cloud-computing infrastructure.

According to Price, the institution decided to migrate to SaaS for three main reasons: to have more frequent, less intrusive system updates with minimal to no downtime; to have a more integrated system that fully leveraged the capabilities of Organizations, Content Collection, and Blackboard Collaborate; and to offer faculty the option of using the Ultra Course View.

“With our SaaS deployment, we transitioned to a continuous delivery model for receiving system updates. As a result, we receive more updates, more frequently, keeping our system functioning at an optimal level. Furthermore, we’re able to more quickly access and utilize new enhancements once they are available,” Price explains.

After moving to SaaS deployment, the next step for Belmont was enabling the Ultra Base Navigation.

Introducing Ultra to Campus Community

Belmont’s approach to rolling out the Ultra experience, according to Price, was to minimize the number of initial changes, and then effectively communicate those changes to faculty.

By turning on the Ultra Base Navigation, all faculty and students experienced an updated landing page with an activity stream of notifications and important information, a new navigation bar with essential tools, and updated colors and fonts.

Price explains that with the Ultra Base Navigation, users can click on the various notifications and immediately take action upon a course message, assignment, discussion board or test, without having to navigate through the course itself.

“We communicated this information through campus-wide e-mails and a series of webinars that our staff recorded and distributed prior to the fall semester,” says Price. “We also spent considerable time and effort to communicate the differences between Ultra Base Navigation and Ultra Course View for our end users. Therefore, we chose to refer to Ultra Base Navigation as the ‘new landing page,’ so that users didn’t confuse that with Ultra Course View.”

According to the director, many faculties did not want to switch from the Original Course View to the Ultra Course View because they didn’t want to lose features and functionality that were not yet available in Ultra. Therefore, they decided to use both Original and Ultra courses within their learning environment.

Facilitating Ultra Course Adoption by Faculty

Prior to every semester, the Department of Instructional Technology facilitates the adoption of the Ultra Course View by taking faculty through a five-stage process that determines the suitability of their course for Ultra (see below).

Review: Increase awareness and understanding of the Ultra experience.

Assessment: Identify the necessary functionality for the course.

Consultation: Discuss the instructional implications of the Ultra conversion.

Conversion: Complete conversion steps in Blackboard Learn.

Training: Select and engage in a training approach based on personal preference and schedule.

The Department has also created the Ultra Awareness Program, an initiative that strategically communicates updates about the current status of the Ultra Course View.

“The program provides an opportunity for faculty to review upcoming enhancements, ask questions of our staff, and learn from other Belmont faculty,” says Price.

According to the director, since the institution receives their system update via continuous delivery on the first Thursday of the month, faculty receive an email on the Wednesday before the update with a summary of critical enhancements, including video previews.

“On the Wednesday after the update, our staff host a virtual meet-up via Blackboard Collaborate to answer questions about the update and allow faculty using the Ultra Course View to share best practices with one another,” Price explains.

Faculty and students have noticed differences between the Original and Ultra experiences, in both features and functionality. However, the director says that, overall, both faculty and students find the Ultra Course View more visually appealing and user-friendly.

According to Price, the institution has noticed three categories of faculty who are more likely to adopt the Ultra Course View: Veteran faculty, who are well-versed with the Original Course View and desire an alternative workflow and updated interface; Faculty new to Belmont and Blackboard who find a seamless connection between the institution’s landing page (Ultra Base Navigation), the Ultra Course View, and the mobile apps for instructors and students; And faculty who haven’t been using a digital learning environment to support course delivery, but find the Ultra Course View offers an easy-to-use interface to efficiently accomplish tasks, such as uploading documents.

Planning Your Ultra Course Roll-Out

In Price’s opinion, an institution’s approach for how to roll out the Ultra Course View must be made based on the expectations about features and functionality and will depend greatly on the size and scope of the institution.

“The pedagogies used by our faculty vary considerably because of the diversity of educational programs we offer on campus. Therefore, our use cases are complex and differ greatly.”

The dual course experience – the flexibility to use both Original Courses and Ultra Courses – allows a group of early adopters to become increasingly proficient with the Ultra workflows, according to Price.

“For us, this brought about two significant benefits. First, we have faculty who can help with training and troubleshooting the Ultra Course View. Furthermore, because many of our early adopters had previously used the Original Course View, they are able to best advocate about the benefits they encountered after transitioning to the Ultra Course View,” the director affirms.

Belmont partnered with Blackboard through the Ultra Partnership Program to roll out the Ultra Course View. The director says that Belmont values the reciprocal relationship they have built and maintained with Blackboard team members.

“As our customer success advocate provides us with the necessary updates and information we need, we’re able to provide feedback about our experience that can be used to further enhance the products and services that Blackboard offers. By participating in specialized user groups and programs, we are able to build a win-win relationship that is truly reflective of a partnership,” Price concludes.


Benefits of SaaS Deployment 

  1. Zero or minimal downtime for educators and students during updates. 
  2. Fast access to new capabilities and enhancements. 
  3. Better user experience due to agility in maintenance and fixes as well as scalability during periods of high usage. 
  4. Peace of mind for IT leaders and system administrators with experienced Blackboard staff managing operations 24/7. 
  5. The option to enable the Ultra experience.  

The Ultra Experience for Blackboard Learn

  • Intuitive design that is simple and fun to use.
  • Responsive interface that adjusts to fit any computer, smartphone or tablet.
  • Ultra-Base Navigation that consolidates what’s new in all courses and offers quick access to critical information.
  • Flexibility to use both the Original Course View and the Ultra Course View, serving the full spectrum of institution and instructor needs.
  • Available in Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) deployments only.

Try the Ultra Experience

An easy way to test and play with the Ultra experience is through CourseSites, a cloud-based platform that gives free access to Blackboard Learn, Blackboard Collaborate, Blackboard Ally, and Blackboard’s mobile apps. Instructors can use the platform to try out the new design, features, and workflows and even teach live courses for free.

Photos by: AFP – Dusty Draper