By early 2020, Ottawa University positioned itself to move its courses from Blackboard Original to the new Blackboard Ultra Course Experience. The institution – which serves a diverse mix of undergraduate and adult students both in person at campuses in Kansas, Wisconsin, and Arizona, as well as online – had spent 2018 and 2019 converting its underlying architecture to SaaS and implementing the new Ultra Navigation (the meta navigation in Blackboard). Ottawa University wanted to offer the newer, more modern and responsive interface to ensure that its 4,000 students could readily engage with their course materials no matter the device or screen size or format.
Ensuring consistency across courses
“We didn’t want our students experiencing different navigational interfaces for different courses,” explained Carine Ullom, Ottawa University’s Associate Dean for Instructional Innovation. Ottawa University’s master course model ensures that the course navigational structure looks and functions in the same way for all online offerings. Once the decision was made to move to the new platform, all courses needed to be moved at the same time.
Even though both learning management system products are owned and supported by Blackboard, the upgrade would take multiple steps and intense planning, and is not as easy as flipping a switch. “It really is like moving to a new learning management system,” Ullom says.
Coordination in a time crunch
Upgrading presented Ottawa University with a challenge. Because it operates on a master course model, the university best ensures the quality of each course by centralizing its course development and any work related to a systematic refresh. Since Blackboard’s Ultra Course experience does not offer a “batch” upgrade option, the university was faced with the prospect of turning over the conversion to individual faculty members or having its instructional designers convert each course one-by-one.
“We would need people who understood, at a very deep level, what the content was [trying to achieve] and have them accurately reproduce it in the Ultra environment – both in terms of purpose and functionality, some of which is very different between Original and Ultra,” explains Matthew Fillo, Academic Technology Systems Administrator at Ottawa University. That presented several challenges. “We don’t have a lot of instructors who can work on projects like this. It would have required a lot of people to be engaged very quickly and would have demanded careful coordination to ensure that every piece of the converted course was working properly,” he said. “And, even if we could have pulled that off, how long would that have taken?”
Taking a Scaffold approach
Ullom and Fillo turned to Arizona-based K16 Solutions, which migrates an average of 6,000 courses per week per institution, to help convert their courses. Meeting as a team, they developed a timeline that allowed the institution to support its students and faculty while K16 Solutions worked on moving their courses to Ultra at Ottawa University’s desired pace.
The university provided K16 Solutions with several sample courses to convert, gave them feedback on the results, and continued to collaborate in an iterative process with new example courses until the course conversion process produced reliable and usable results, optimized for the nuances of how Ottawa University constructs its online courses. The Ottawa University team then converted active course masters, with the plan to continue to iterate while converting batches of courses term over term, each with courses that potentially would include features not previously encountered.
K16 Solutions migrates thousands of courses per week and integrates with Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace, Moodle, and Sakai. It has worked with institutions including Rutgers University, Wake Forest University, the New York Institute of Technology, California State University-Fullerton, University of South Alabama, MSU-Denver and more. Because it offers simplified quality assurance and an automated standardization, which reduces clean-up, K16 Solutions can reduce migration time by more than 90%. For schools using Blackboard, K16 Solutions will migrate 300 courses from Original to Ultra at no cost.
Working closely with each institution, K16 Solutions’ Scaffold Migration system can be customized to meet the needs of the client. “They had to take on very specific quirks of how we run our show,” Ullom said, noting that Ottawa University has integrated more than 20 additional software products into its Blackboard system. “They had to ensure that all those integrations worked seamlessly in the Ultra environment.” That kind of customization required K16 Solutions to write code to “manage some very bizarre situations,” she said.
Their original plan, to have Ultra courses ready to teach by April 2020, was delayed by the pandemic. The custom conversion algorithm was completed in May 2020 and was used to convert the university’s Summer 2020 session courses. The university has found that each subsequent conversion batch goes more quickly, with each one requiring about a week from start to finish.
Ottawa University’s online courses are now in a more mobile-friendly format on the Ultra platform, allowing its students and faculty to continue their work.
“I would recommend them hands down,” Ullom said. “You have to have a certain mindset to be able to understand your customers’ needs and be able to execute on the technical side,” Ullom said. “This was a good experience on all fronts.”
This content was paid for by K16 Solutions and produced by Inside Higher Ed's sponsored content team. The editorial staff of Inside Higher Ed had no role in its preparation.