Enhancing Live Online Sessions with the New Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Part II: Updated Features and Faculty Feedback

Students watching online sessoin

During fall 2015, we introduced Blackboard Collaborate Ultra – an updated version of the existing web conferencing tool that can promote online collaboration and interaction. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra can be used to hold live class sessions, offer virtual office hours online, or conduct meetings with students or colleagues. One of the most exciting improvements in this release of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is that sessions open quickly directly in a web browser, with nothing to download or install in order to join a session.

This time, we want to discuss additional features that can enhance online synchronous courses as well as share feedback from the faculty and instructors who participated in beta testing or piloting Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. The beta testing program began in spring 2015 and allowed NIU faculty and instructors to explore the revised interface, test upgraded features, and provide feedback to Blackboard to continue improving the product. In the summer and fall 2015, faculty and instructors piloted Blackboard Collaborate Ultra in their courses. During that time, a number of existing features were enhanced and a few new ones were introduced.

Feedback from Faculty

A major advantage to using web conferencing is the ability to bridge distance so that students can participate from wherever they happen to be. Whether due to job demands, family obligations, transportation issues, or other causes, distance and travel time can represent a significant barrier to pursuing education. Web conferencing can address these concerns by allowing you to present material, engage in live discussion, and keep long distance students connected to live class sessions. This was supported by one of the faculty members,

This program will allow me the opportunity to communicate course content with the class in a timely manner so that no material is missed. A few years ago, I had an RN reservist who was pursuing a MS degree and was deployed to Germany.  I was able to Skype him into the class each week, but it was cumbersome and didn’t allow for him to see the other students well.  This program would successfully include a student unable to attend the course face-to-face.

Another faculty member expressed a similar sentiment,

I used the tool for a course offered to first-year graduate students, many of whom work full-time and are considered mid-career. Once the technology adjustment was made, they found it extremely useful to interact with the instructor without making the trek to the campus.

During the pilot courses, novice users of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra found it to be quite intuitive, with a short learning curve, making it easy for faculty and students to begin using it quickly,

I had never used Blackboard Collaborate, yet learning how to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra was very easy.  The process is very intuitive and the students also seemed to pick it up easily.

One common complaint expressed by faculty who are considering whether to put their courses online is that online teaching can be a somewhat impersonal experience, with little to no opportunity for faculty-to-student, student-to-content, or student-to-student interaction. However, as reported by one NIU instructor, her students seemed to enjoy this updated web conferencing tool,

Feedback from students was very positive- they told me that they really liked the convenience of being able to have this session online.  They also indicated that they felt they were able to get to know their classmates a little bit better.

In addition to presenting their own content to students, another potential application is for faculty and instructors to invite a guest lecturer to a class session to speak on an area of their specialization.  In one instance during the fall 2015 semester, a faculty member invited an expert in substance abuse to speak to her upper division psychology students in a face-to-face class. Because travel logistics and other obligations made an in-person appearance all but impossible, web conferencing offered a convenient solution. The guest speaker was able to join the class ‘virtually’ from her office at another institution. Students were able to ask the guest for clarification when necessary as well submit questions, thus benefiting from the guest speaker’s clinical and research experience,

I have used collaborate 2x – once in the workshop ….. to train on it and then also with a guest lecture.  Things went very smoothly in the class you taught and I was impressed with how participants could interact by raising hands and typing questions/comments.

Although a primary use of this web conferencing tool is for faculty and instructors to conduct live online session for their courses, an alternative use for Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is to hold online meetings with research associates and collaborators,

I have used it on several occasions both for teaching as well as to work on research projects with colleagues in other parts of the country.  I like the features of being able to share files on the screen as we discuss items.

New Features Added

Now that the core functionality is completed, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra continues to be updated with small additions on an ongoing basis. These changes do not significantly change the workflow for using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, but do improve the experience for both faculty and students. Here are a few of the tools or upgrades that were recently added:

  • Content Zoom: Individual users can now control the zoom level of the content, which makes it easier for participants to view content at a size appropriate for their screen-size. Participants can choose between ‘best fit’, ‘actual size’, and ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’.
  • Private messaging between Moderators and Presenters: Within the general chat window, Moderators and Presenters now can access a private chat feature to other moderators and presenters. This helps you coordinate with other faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants, or support staff who are assisting with your session.
  • Visual indicator when you are sharing video: All participants can be more aware now of whether or not they are broadcasting their web camera. When your video feed is on, you will see an ‘eye’ beside your avatar image
  • Participant connection indicator: Faculty and instructors can now tell at-a-glance who is in their session and who might be having trouble connecting. New indicators have been added that inform faculty when someone is in the process of joining their session, if users are connected, and how strong their connection is. This is as easy as hovering a pointer over participants in the ‘Participant’ panel to see the indicators.
  • Audio via telephone: If faculty or students do not have access to a microphone, they can still participate via the new integrated ‘telephony’. Now, faculty and students have the ability to call in to a live session using their phone, where they can listen or speak to session participants.
  • Audio indicator: For those participants who are using a microphone, an indicator icon (dark microphone) appears beside their name and photo in the ‘Participant’ panel, permitting faculty to identify who is speaking and who has turned off their audio. This can be important as the indicator will move to whoever the current speaker is as a discussion unfolds.
  • Mobile access: Students and other participants can participate in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra Sessions from any iOS, Android, or Windows Mobile device using the free Bb Student app.

 

Final Thoughts

The consensus opinion among faculty who commented on their experiences using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra was favorable. Here are a few other comments from faculty who have tried Blackboard Collaborate Ultra:

I enjoyed using the technology and I feel like it has a great deal of promise.  I am looking forward to using it in the future.

The technology seemed to work well and everyone who has used it liked the overall look and feel. Overall, very positive, very easy to use. Love it.

I am so glad that this program is available and I am looking forward to using this again in the future!

For the pilot, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center had to manually create Blackboard Collaborate Ultra sessions. It will be available for everyone and integrated in Blackboard beginning in summer 2016. If you would like to try it early, or for more information, training, or consultation on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, contact Dan Cabrera, Multimedia Coordinator for the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at dcabrera@niu.edu or 815-753-0613.

 

Photo Credit: www.laudio-lucistore.It

 

 

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