Thursday, 19 May 2016

#BbTLC16 Report - Blackboard product updates

I've been very remiss in my reports from #BbTLC16, which happened at the beginning of April. But I still have my notes from the sessions, intending to write them up.

On Tuesday I sat in on the Blackboard International Product Update Webinar - which covered similar ground to the product update sessions at #BbTLC16 - so I thought I'd take the opportunity to put a few sentences together.

The webinar covered three main products: Blackboard Learn, Collaborate Ultra, and mobile solutions Bb Student and Bb Instructor.

Blackboard Learn

Wade Weichel gave a presentation (at both #BbTLC16 and on the webinar) about the roadmap for the classic VLE. Apparently the focus is to make the learner's experience "more delightful".

flickr photo by Pleuntje shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Blackboard are moving to a regular update schedule, with two major releases each year, and cumulative updates in-between. Q2 2016 was released last month, and brings increased stability to the system - which is good news. There was a lot of talk about infrastructure and authentication, which went over my head, but one piece of advice is to test all (non Blackboard) building blocks (for example, Turnitin), on a test environment, to ensure that they work properly, prior to upgrade on a production environment.

The old chat and virtual classrooms are being discontinued - although we disabled these on our system some time ago. Otherwise, there are some accessibility improvements and a reply capability on emails.

The Ultra experience for Learn, which was touted at BbWorld in 2014 and again at the Education on Tour event in Dublin that year, was not mentioned at all. Instead we heard about a new theme for 9.1, which would include some responsive design features. Last month I wondered if this would be ready in time to test and apply before our new academic year (starting in early September). However, from today's webinar it seems that this is still in development, and updates will be provided in future webinars.

Finally, admin-level course activity overview reports, which sound really useful, are also still in development.

Collaborate Ultra

Like many institutions, we are currently running both versions of Collaborate (classic and Ultra), but haven't made the switch to Ultra from within the VLE yet. This is because the functionality within Ultra does not yet match that of the classic version (see my notes on this from #durbbu). However, it's clear that Collab Ultra is being developed quickly, with updates being released regularly.

A view of Collab Ultra, taken at #BbTLC16

Carl Marelli gave an update on Collaborate Ultra. The biggest advantage of Ultra is the lack of a Java download - anybody can participate directly in the browser (preferably Chrome). Ultra is described as "delightful and modern". Other features that have been recently added include:
  • the maximum number of participants has increased to 100, and will further increase to 250;
  • uploaded files (powerpoint, pdf etc) now persist within a Collab room
  • increased video and audio quality
  • accessibility features
  • MP4 recordings
  • integration with Bb student
Coming soon will be breakout groups and group chats, while polling features are still in development.

An improved integration with Learn is also being developed, so that instructors can choose whether to switch to Ultra or stay with the classic version (depending on their use case).


Dan Loury gave an update on the mobile strategy for Blackboard. The original mobile app, Blackboard Mobile Learn, is being replaced by two persona driven apps - one for students and one for instructors. Bb Student was launched in the UK and Ireland in January, and I wrote about it at the time. We've since had some limited feedback from students on the app, but for the most part I suspect students at NUIG are still using Mobile Learn.

Since January, development has continued on the app, and it now includes notifications - which is a feature much in demand from students.

Future releases will include discussion boards and the ability to join a Collaborate Ultra session from the app - these features are currently in beta. In development is the ability for app-to-app launches, which will mean that we can embed Bb Student in our NUIG Mosaic app.

A little further away is the launch of a Bb Instructor app, which will replace the current Bb Grader. This will be available for tablets only, initially.

Keeping Informed

It is good to see Blackboard continue to develop the various tools, but sometimes important new features become available without us being aware of them. The events can be useful to find out about these, but often we are too caught up in the general day-to-day activities to realise that there is something new to think about.

The webinars are good opportunities for a quick overview of developments. One tip is to always sign up for the webinar; even if you can't make it at the time, you will receive a link to the recording.

Another relatively new initiative is the Innovate&Educate monthly newsletter, for which you can sign up here.

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Emma said...

Thanks, Sharon. I was also present; and you've highlighted similar points to those I noted. Have you seen the thread on the Blackboard community, where people are discussing the issue of Turnitin & the Q2 2016 update ... which basically is they don't (currently) integrate. (It's some of Matt's comments from May 18th onwards.

Sharon Flynn said...

Thanks for reading Emma. I did note the question specifically about Turnitin - which would be a major issue for us and a reason not to upgrade at this time. I wasn't aware of the thread on the Blackboard community site - but will certainly look it up. Thanks for bringing my attention to it.