Learn Ultra: the continuously evolving product

The whispers are true, change is happening and after 10 years of looking “clunky”, Learn will start to change from June 28th. Ultra has been on the tips of our tongues for years, we have watched as others boldly go where no VLE has gone before whilst observing the upgrade aftermath in community forums and online conferences.

Now we stand at the edge of something new, Ultra Base Navigation will be enabled for all users on Tuesday 28th June with the Ultra Course View being rolled out in summer 2023. Ultra is not new, I first saw Ultra at my 1st Blackboard Europe conference in Birmingham 9 years ago, a few slides but already it looked different to Original Learn.  Over the last few years we have seen real investment, focus and clear direction in Ultra especially with the recent Anthology acquisition of Blackboard.

The University of Edinburgh preparation for Ultra started a few years ago when we moved Learn from being on UoE internal infrastructure to Blackboards Software as a Service (cloud based) environment. This brought with it numerous benefits including 24/7/365 support and upgrades with minimal to no downtime. I might need to provide some examples on how these benefits were game changers.

24/7/365 support is expected for any large service so it kinda made sense to move away from the local 9-5 Mon-Friday support model.

Previously Learn was upgraded once or twice a year with an upgrade including bug fixes and usually the odd minor new bit of functionality. An upgrade would take 8 hours and we would need to schedule Learn to be unavailable for the day whilst we performed the upgrade (which was a nightmare as no date is a good date for the university’s core teaching platform to be unavailable). With the move to Blackboard’s Software as a Service (SaaS) the upgrade could be scheduled for early morning and the service could be available whilst upgrading…. so no downtime.

So we are on SaaS which is available a lot more and has support available 24/7/365 however Learn Original was dating quickly and upgrades with the new functionality we craved were sadly lacking. In a digital world where applications are constantly evolving Learn Original was stagnating. We obviously don’t want to overload staff and students with change especially with large workloads and the presumption that everybody just gets tech however we could see that Learn Original whilst meeting the majority of user requirements it wasn’t meeting user expectations.

Learn Ultra is only available to clients on SaaS due to the continuous agile methodology Blackboard have adopted for change. An example of this methodology in practice is Microsoft Office 365 and its numerous applications. Consider Outlook which has new features released on a monthly basis, it has the option for users to preview changes, it has an online user voice webpage that collates any user feedback and allows users to vote on new features and provide user stories which provide context. Basically it’s a product constantly listening, reviewing, developing, testing and releasing improvements to the platform based on data and user feedback. This may seem like a lot of change and things can change for the better and worse however what the agile methodology surfaces is user expectations and user requirements. Previous to agile, products would stagnate and a bug or feature request could get lost with all the other requests or bugs (you can only harass an account manager for so long before they start to ignore you).

With Ultra we are seeing feature development and bug fixes released every 4 weeks (the timeline can flex slightly). On a practical service management side this is a challenge as we need to be aware of changes, review when deployed to testing environments (some may require additional configuration or collaboration with other teams), feedback to the vendor (bugs), document, communicate to the community, promote and support. All this every 4 weeks! Yes the release schedule may vary each month however but it’s a massive change from the odd new button each 6 months to new buttons potentially everywhere every 4 weeks!

Processes have been created to manage the change cycle ahead of the University switching to Ultra and whilst new functionality is being released we still have levels of control to limit its impact. Continuous deployment over the coming years brings challenges to all audiences however we hope it also brings more opportunities and more importantly meets user’s expectations and requirements. 


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