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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

NIU to switch to Blackboard Ultra

Joey Trella
A screenshot of an NIU student’s Blackboard course page. Blackboard Ultra, the updated version of the original, will be the main learning management system for NIU for Spring 2024. (Joey Trella | Northern Star)

DeKALB – It may sound like nails on a chalkboard, but teachers are expected to transition all coursework to a new online system by the end of the year.

Courseviews for NIU faculty will be shifted over from the current learning management system, Blackboard Learn, to the updated version, Blackboard Ultra. To assist this transition, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning is accelerating efforts to prepare faculty for this standardization.

Blackboard is the learning management system that NIU students can use to access assignments, grades, coursework and communicate with their teachers. Blackboard Ultra is like the initial version “Blackboard Original”, but it’s courseview system is updated and allows for tools like screen readers and magnifiers.

The Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning performed a review in 2021 on NIU’s continued use for Blackboard Learn as the university’s learning management system. NIU decided it would continue to use Blackboard Learn, but it would begin transitioning all of its courseview from Original to Ultra.

Stephanie Richter, director of teaching excellence and support in the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, said the 10-year-old Blackboard Original system is a severely outdated program that does not meet the expectations for a modern learning management system.

“I think that the Ultra courseview is much more modern and intuitive for both faculty and students to use,” Richter said. “It’s more in line with what we expect from the applications that we use outside of Blackboard or even outside of teaching and learning.”

Blackboard Ultra comes with the current NIU licensing with Blackboard Learn and comes at no additional cost to the university.

The Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning began voluntary training for Ultra in 2019 but began pushing additional training in 2022 when it was announced all faculty were expected to have their courseview in Ultra by the end of 2023.

Multiple training options are being offered to staff, including monthly workshops, one-on-one training and Blackboard Ultra Transition Academy, a three-week online course teaching faculty how to use the system. While training for Blackboard Ultra is not mandatory, it is expected of faculty to have their courseview in Blackboard Ultra by Spring 2024.

According to Richter, 40% of NIU courseviews were set up using Blackboard Ultra in Spring 2022 which increased to 77% in Fall 2023. 

Leslie “More More” Adams-Mueller, a senior general studies major, said after using Ultra for several of her classes, she feels like the Ultra layout is more difficult to navigate than Original, having to spend more time clicking through sub-tabs just to find the information she needs.

“So far, I feel like it’s very frustrating to the teachers. It’s causing more work for them, but also simultaneously it’s causing more work for me – us students – and I feel like we’re all in agreement on that,” Adams-Mueller said. “In addition to it being new, it just takes more effort to do anything.”

Richter said Blackboard Ultra is more complex for faculty than it is for students.

Laura Vazquez, director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Communications, said Blackboard Ultra, despite not liking it at first, has become a valuable tool after a year of difficult training. 

“It’s not just easier for me, it makes me a better professional in the classroom,” Vazquez said. “It’s like anything else you learn, you have to work at it.”

Vazquez said faculty may not be happy to take on the burden of learning a new module in addition to their current tasks, but it would be worth their time.

Faculty and students can find more information about Blackboard Ultra on NIU’s website under Teaching and Learning with Blackboard.

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