This Thursday, I attended the 2017 Blackboard Black Belt Summit at Missouri State University. The invitees were faculty and graduate students who hold a competency certification over the university’s Learning Management System (Blackboard®). The conference has been held each year since 2012 and is intended to showcase new technology and pedagogy concerns for teaching online and utilizing the university LMS, as well as other technology, and serves as a continuing education vehicle for designations like the Certified Distance Educator. I was happy to see the English Department have a strong presence at the conference, with graduate student Taylor Shaw-Hamp and faculty Tracy Dalton attending. (Tracy gave a presentation about style templates in Microsoft Word, as well as some higher-level functionality embedded in the program, such as indexing for the Table of Contents feature).  

I thought this year’s event was very informative and well-planned, with speakers showcasing a number of new technologies, not only new functionalities within the Blackboard system, but also outside technology, and there was a presentation about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which concerns course construction and pedagogy concerns for teaching students with various disabilities. The discussion about UDL brought up some nuanced ideas that I had not considered in online course construction, such as design specifics for compatibility with screen-reader technology. Specifically, we were shown how screen-reader technology does not recognize otherwise intuitive methods of visual stress, such as bolding text or highlighting. Also, in UDL, instructors are encouraged to have a separate document for lesson plans that contains key terms and points for each lesson. This construction best practice enables the visually-impaired to better navigate course content outside of visual cues that we might take for granted. The presenters from the Disability Resource Center were very friendly and knowledgeable, and encouraged everyone at the conference to reach out to them when designing course content. You can access their department here: Disability Resource Center.


In the middle of the conference, there was a presentation about the technology available from the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning (FCTL), which offers, amongst other things, the capability for studio-level recording and editing of course content for virtual classrooms. They have an impressive array of capability in the FCTL and are very eager to help faculty with the creation of video content. We were shown polished examples of work from a range of different departments and the videos all were professional filmed and edited. (One professor from the History Department has recorded over 100 videos in the FCTL). I encourage everyone to check out the FCTL and the resources they have available for online instructors. You can access their department here: Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning.  

A big part of the conference involved the Blackboard LMS, including a showcase of new features and tools, as well as best practices for maximizing instructional content and functionality. In particular, I thought the discussion of a new “Collaborate Ultra” functionality within Blackboard was helpful and intriguing.

The Collaborate Ultra® feature is new to Blackboard this year, and I think it is a significant improvement over the previous functionality. The new Blackboard Collaborate Ultra® functionality is a tool within the LMS that allows for real-time video conferencing. Within Collaborate Ultra®, users can share files and applications in a media-rich environment that allows for voice and screen-capture, as well as a virtual whiteboard. The functionality can be embedded into an existing Blackboard course site, and opens right in the user browser, so there is no need to install additional software to join a session. (Google’s Chrome browser is recommended for best functionality). In particular, this new video conferencing feature seems more stable and intuitive than its predecessor and allows for the creation of multiple “rooms” wherein students can collaborate with each other and/or their instructor. The presenter highlighted the use of Collaborate Ultra® for virtual office hours, something I intend on implementing in my course instruction next semester. Lastly, the new Collaborate Ultra® tool allows for guest access, wherein people who otherwise would not have access to the Blackboard site can join and even act in the role of presenter.

I encourage everyone to explore this new function within Blackboard. To make the tool available within Blackboard, click on “Customization” in the main menu on the left-hand side, then “Tool Availability”, which will open a screen that looks like this:

Screenshot 1
Figure 1: Tool Availability Checklist in BlackBoard

From here, scroll down until you see “Collaborate Ultra®”. Once the feature is enabled on your course site, you can add it as a tool link:


Screenshot 2
Figure 2: Adding Collaborate Ultra as a Tool Link in Blackboard


The tool link can be named as best suits your needs. In my case, for example, I added Collaborate Ultra® as a tool link on my development site and named it “Virtual Office Hours: TR – 11:00 – 1:30”.  Once added to your course site, you can launch Collaborate Ultra® and begin creating new sessions.  Here is a screenshot of the utility’s main screen:


Screenshot 3
Figure 3: Collaborate Ultra


 From this main screen, you can set a start and end time/date, as well as create an open session or one that repeats. Under “Session Settings”, you can choose whether participants can share audio and/or video, post IM, draw on the whiteboard, and even access the session via telephone. There is a lot of functionality with this new tool and I encourage everyone to check it out. You can learn more about it visiting here: Blackboard Collaborate Ultra Help or reach out to MSU Computer Services. I think this new Collaborate Ultra® tool is a powerful new functionality available to us as online instructors, and definitely worth exploring.

In closing, the 2017 Blackboard Black Belt Conference was a great experience. The presenters showcased a broad array of useful content, much of it nuanced and the technology showcased was mostly new and cutting edge. If you would like to learn more about maximizing your impact as an online instructor at MSU, I think working toward the Blackbord Black Belt certification is a great door to pass through, and it enables participation in future conferences and special events, as well as the Certified Distance Educator Award. Hopefully, I will see some of you next year!


Brandon Henry

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