Skip to main content

Digital education

Sarah Lethbridge: My experience with Blackboard Collaborate Ultra

21 October 2020

Ah Blackboard Collaborate Ultra… it has been known to get a bit of a bashing.  Someone even started having a go at it whilst I was in the middle of delivering a webinar telling everyone how much I liked it.

I first started trialling it out a couple of years ago, thanks to my friend Karl Luke (who is somewhat of an online learning guru) because I had asked him what was the best package to use to start doing webinars. I had just become the Director of the Business School’s Executive MBA and I wanted the opportunity to advertise regular online sessions to help to promote the programme.  I thought I was going to have to pay for some kind of webinar software through Executive Education but imagine my surprise when he told me that there was already an integrated package in Learning Central that I could use!? That I could share the link with anyone external and hold a webinar session virtually?! Amazing!

I quite like playing around with new software packages and so I set about getting to grips with how it worked. Luckily, the Executive Education team can be found (well, used to be found) in one room in the Postgraduate Teaching Centre and so I was able to run many trial sessions with Hannah, ‘What can you see?’, ‘Can you see that?’ shouting over the desk partition (unknowingly breaking future COVID rules).  The big day arrived when I was to host my first webinar to promote our fantastic programme, beamed to the whole of the world wide web, to the grand audience of … Hannah.

Nevertheless I persisted, occasionally offering webinars to promote the programme in the hope that someone would one day join. The same could be said of Executive Education’s livestreaming of our Breakfast Briefing sessions. Karl also showed us how to use Panopto to livestream sessions, and I was so pleased to be able to do so, particularly because we had received some criticism that the timings of the Breakfast Briefings were not inclusive, that anyone with school run responsibilities would not be able to attend.  Livestreaming and its subsequent recording would mean that anyone could experience the sessions, regardless of their responsibilities, albeit not the (slightly too chilled) danish pastries.

So, when the global pandemic arrived, these encounters put me in good stead to deal with the significant challenge that lay ahead of us, that of moving our whole Executive Education teaching experience online. Thanks to colleagues and the Digital Education Programme I’ve learned so much about the shift in pedagogy that’s required to deliver excellent online learning – asynchronous, bite size, clear learning pathway etc. but our Executive students still desperately want the opportunity to discuss their learning with their lecturer ‘live online’, they want to hear from each other, they want to interact. So anyway,  I was able to show some of our Executive MBA module leaders what I knew about Blackboard Collaborate, the key thing for me being that you need to get used to clicking in and out of the ‘hamburger button’ (three lines, one on top of each other) and the ‘arrows button’, to the left and right of the screen, rather than menu bars that we are used to. 

However, the problem was that my experience of the package thus far hadn’t really ever been tested by a large audience. Very quickly we learned about one of its major drawbacks, its temperamentality depending on the internet browser used by the teacher and the participants.  If you are planning to use Blackboard Collaborate and haven’t worked this out yet, you need to, and fast! The best browser to use is Chrome, or Edge. It HATES Safari and whilst I’ve used it fine with Firefox, that can sometimes limit what you can see too. 

Another key thing for me with Blackboard, and indeed with Zoom, is that you need to start thinking like a TV editor in a newsroom, or even a Radio DJ in a recording booth that has a big ‘LIVE’ red sign above the door. Whilst you are juggling thinking about what you want to say, how your students are feeling, you also have to start thinking ‘What am I broadcasting right now? What can they see?’. So you need to get into the rhythm of thinking ‘I want to show them this webpage now’ and then pressing buttons to ensure that they can see it too.  The problem comes because when you are looking at your screen (or hopefully screens – multiple monitors make the delivery of live online sessions so much easier) you might think that they can see what you can see but you need to ask yourself, have I pressed the ‘go live’/‘share’ button? Very hard to remember to direct yourself, especially mid performance.  So yes, this tweet resonates…

For the most part though, I enjoy delivering online. The trick for me is to try to be as relaxed as possible, to not be phased by the INEVITABLE technical glitches and problems (to be honest, when something goes wrong it really does manage to focus everyone’s attention! “and we’re back in the room!”) and to use the opportunity to just get to know your students, to show them who you are, what you’ve learned and what matters to you.

Yes there are decisions to be made about which package to choose (I’ve put a little table together to share my thoughts with you) – I do really like Blackboard Collaborate, but I also really like Zoom. I can see the potential of Teams but it just hasn’t clicked with me yet for teaching. I’m sure it will, I know it has with lots of you. I truly believe that the more packages you get to grips with, the more confident you become in all of them and the great thing is that they all keep upgrading what they offer all the time, all competing in a race to be the package that you pick, so a drawback of one package one week, disappears with an upgrade the next.  

So all the best… if you were like me at School, doomed to perpetual “needlewoman number 2”, “person in the crowd”, “hot chestnut seller” roles in the School play, now is your opportunity to shine ‘live online’! Good luck with it!

Written by Sarah Lethbridge, Director of Executive Education and External Relations (Cardiff Business School)