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Digital education

Initial thoughts on Blackboard Ultra

7 November 2022
Desk with stationary

By Tammy Laugharne, Head of Business and Humanities at the CUISC

Lightbody (2022) in his book ‘Advancing Learning with and Beyond the Classroom’ states “the stand-alone classroom with a start, middle and end is a deeply embedded construct that has defined learning for over 200 years, but over the last five years artificial intelligence has transformed how learning can be accessed, presented and assessed. Learning is no longer bound by time or location or reliant on the curriculum knowledge of an individual teacher”.

After using Blackboard Ultra (the new version of Blackboard) for the first time this year I can certainly see how the software developers have taken these types of views literally and thought about how to help us educators move more easily into the realm of digital learning pedagogy.

As I first gazed upon the new “Intro to Management and Organisations” module page I had to construct, I remember thinking how different this new layout was and must admit to having a slight moment of panic. However, the more I have used Blackboard Ultra the more I prefer it to the Blackboard of old and the more I switch between the old version on the other modules I teach and the new, the more frustrated I feel with the old Blackboard pages in my remit.

This blog is a little snippet of my journey into the ‘Ultraverse’ and why I think it is in many ways the superior Blackboard.

One of my first jobs was to move content from the old module to the new shiny Ultra model.

This is very much easier in Ultra as the ‘add content’ node has an option to copy content which opens up all the modules you have access to, meaning you can copy content from the whole page to a part of it from anywhere. Infinitely easier than the Blackboard of old and really useful for anyone that needs to place generic content on all the pages they oversee, as I do.

One of the initial misgivings I had was how learners would engage with this new look, with its scrollable style of page. Biggs and Tang (2007) advocate “action research” or “action learning”, where reflective and self-directed study is encouraged and directed by the teacher.

Handily, Ultra can help here as it has a forced sequencing feature within the learning module folders. This means that students have to engage (or at least open!) the materials in the order that you place them in the learning module prior to being able to open the next resource. This is useful as we have always been able to release information for students on Blackboard to ensure they don’t run too far ahead. However, this feels like another way we can encourage students to at the very least look at all the materials available to them.

You can also see how students are progressing through the content. It was at this point that I could see one of the benefits of Ultra: you have this kind of data easily available and don’t have to search through menus to find out if the students are engaging with all your hard work!

“The ability to hold attention and to exercise effective classroom management is an essential base engagement skill for all teachers, but the edge observed in the behaviour of great teachers is their ability to draw all the students into productive engagement through their obvious passion and enthusiasm for their subject.” (Lightbody, 2022). I feel this can also be done outside of sessions via the use of the announcement board.

On Ultra, announcements still sit on the left of the VLE screen but they now open as a tab on the page.

New announcements are highlighted very plainly to the student in the middle of their screen when they open the page (this pop-up tells students there is an announcement and requires an x to close to access the main page, making them hard to miss!).

Interestingly, it is also now very easy to see how many students have read your message as you can see how many viewers you have had when you open the feature (more readily available learning analytics).

The only issue I had with this feature was that it also counts course staff in the viewers list which can lead to misleading numbers here, which is something to bear in mind.

Blended learning is a key component of online learning and we have certainly seen the goals of Vision 2020 (Department for Education and Skills, 2006) become a reality in terms of facilitating collaboration via various software and communications tools.

One electronic communication tool that has really added value for me in terms of learner engagement is the Discussion Board. This was an integral part of one of my summative assessments for the module so I needed it to work for me.

I can honestly say this conversation between the whole group and I has really fostered a sense of community among us and its ease of use for all has meant that all the learners in the group have completed the first article discussion piece (a rarity indeed).

Ultra’s usability and noticeable indications if work has been added or amended makes it easy for you and the learners to see if there’s anything that requires marking or reviewing.

A further goal of Vision 2020 (Department for Education and Skills, 2006) was to “help schools to use a wide variety of readily available resources and software to enhance learning”. Ultra brings us the refreshing content market with its user-friendly platform.

Tools such as Padlet, Panapto and Turnitin are now all easily accessible and creation of digital materials is truly embedded into Ultra. No more opening multiple applications, uploading content and embedding codes here; I feel this is a real game-changer in terms of time saved on making these materials!


In respect of Turnitin (now located in the content market), it is very easy for you to see students submissions as it launches into the assignment inbox exactly where you put it, so no more having to navigate to grade centre.

When asked in class, the verdict from the students is that they like Ultra and I have yet to receive a negative comment about it. Here’s to some positive student survey feedback!

I can’t profess to know everything about Ultra as yet, but the more I use it the more I genuinely prefer it to the previous incarnation of Blackboard. So all I can say is jump in, the water’s lovely!