First impressions on Collaborate Ultra

Blog Post created by yoleneors on Mar 4, 2016

UPDATE : Collaborate Ultra has changed a LOT since I posted my first impressions as a client. If I were still a Bb administrator I'd definitely choose to onboard the whole institution with Ultra now, because the current feature set outweighs the drawbacks still remaining, and I'm also confident regarding the rhythm that updates are released and the direction they're going.

I now work at Bb, and get to use Collaborate almost everyday .

I'll post in orange some updates on specific points that have changed, as of end of March 2017, so basically a year later.


Although we were quite enthousiastic to discover previews of the "Ultra" experience on Collaborate, I had been postponing using Collaborate Ultra "for real" for a couple of months now : as a Blackboard admin, I know we won't roll it out soon, as we'd like to wait for break-out groups and polls to be implemented, so I thought I'd dive into it later on, on a further version (with more features).

(UD : Breakout groups and polls are now available)


For those of you who couldn't attend, there was a Blackboard webinar for the "International" clients recently detailing the roadmap (Thanks to the Product Team  for organising this : the number of participant showed there is great interest in this kind of events   ), you'll find in a previous post the slides summing up the main points for each product :  Summary slides of the roadmap webinar (February 3rd)  including Collaborate.



So, keeping in mind those features coming down the road, here are my first impressions on using Ultra, and thinking of what might be the Pluses and Minuses from the standpoint of a Professor using it for a virtual classroom. This means I wasn't thinking "is this a good Google hangout" but really "if I had to give a training online using this tool, what would I love, what would I struggle with")


**** PS : I apologize for this post not being very synthetic, but it's written in one try and "in the heat of the moment" ; I do hope it's still useful, and enables readers you to anticipate what they may find difficult, before actually being in session with students ****


FYI : I was using it with Chrome which is the browser recommended for now by Blackboard


Access and first set up :

THIS is the aspect which makes those used to the "classic" Collaborate love the Ultra one : the process is super sleek and super fast : you click on a link, and a few seconds later you're in the room, then it automatically asks you to make your audio/video setup (with "classic" the presenter had to use precious minutes at the beginning reminding guests to do it and where to go to do it). So in a matter of maximum 30 seconds your students/participants are ready. It's almost as fast for the Moderator/Professor, but the one downside is you need to install a Chrome add-on  to be able to use application sharing : having to do this is not a problem, I just wish it were included in the first set up (audio/video  + sharing) so that one wouldn't have this surprise later on and loose time during the first session.

Another nice feature : it's quick and easy to understand how to add your picture on your profile, which is a good practice making the presentation/course more "human" (especially in case you can't use or have to stop using the video)

(UD : I also always keep in the room (and my desktop) some handy slides to give basic instructions and deal with common problems. Here they are (in French though) : Slides d'accueil Collaborate Ultra )


User Interface and its impact on animation of the class :

I won't talk about the features missing which will come later, but here is what seemed to me like probable sources of difficulties or discomfort for a Professor :

  • It's all in one page and  your web browser : at first it's actually what makes it great, but quite quickly you wish you had the ability to organise your workspace with more flexibility.

For example :

_ quite quickly you'll find out if you plan to show anything from the web you'd be better off having two separate Chrome windows to do so (one for collaborate, and things you don't want to share with your students but may need access to, and one for whatever you want to show to students on the web.)

_ When you're doing something like sharing an application, whenever something happens with your students you hear a notification but have no idea what's going on until you get back to the Collaborate tab and check the right panel.

I really wished that : at least I could get some kind of pop-up notification to know what's going on and if I should pay immediate attention to it.

Better even would be the possibility to open the panel we want in a separate pop-up window (this way we can have it overlapping  or combining with whatever other window we're working with). This is particularly crucial for chat panel and participants list panel in my opinion. I know most of our Professors using Collaborate classic got used to use two screens, or change place and size of each of the "blocks" (ex: remove video block, make chat block bigger, detach participant block on another screen, etc ...) and the functionnal gap is quite big on this aspect with Ultra which will probably cause frustration.

(UD : no pop up yet -it's probably a design choice, as many browsers have pop up blocked by default-, but it's now possible to detach the participant list so you can follow chat and participant activity at the same time as presenting. When screensharing I'd advise to organise your screen so you have both applications visible at the same time, the responsiveness of ultra makes it easy to have a "small" window with it )


  • It doesn't make it much easier regarding the talk and video buttons. What often happened in Classic is that people didn't realize their microphone was off becasue they didn't click on "talk" and same for the video. Now the buttons with icons are better and well placed, which is great, but I think if they were not only green when working but also red when deactivated it would be more obvious for people when they can't be heard (Hangout has this color code and it's helpful).

In my dreams, "talk" could be either manually or automatically activated (= when the volume is high it means you want to talk and so it activates the "talk" function)

Besides, the new way to handle permissions (I'll come back to that later) will cause probably issues : before, when suddenly there was too much background noise, the professor would just cut off the talk permission for everyone in just one click, and then re-enable it for the student who is supposed to talk , and gradually to others if needed, no he can't do that apparently.

(UD : it's now possible for the professor to mute everyone or just one student, to solve those background noise issues, and then students can reactivate their microphone individually. If using Collaobrate during an in-classroom session and students using their smartphone to engage , it's good practice to mute everyone )


Participant list :

The way the participant list works does make the animation more difficult, in my opinion.


  • You can't manage permissions in a detailed way (for each feature), and in bulk (top of the column, or individually). Now you give roles, which have a set or predefined authorizations attached. In my experience this is not really how it works when you give an online classroom : you need to be able to quickly assign specific permissions, for one, several or none of the participants, and that's what the participant list in Classic did very well.

Background noise ? Cut off the sound for everyone, and then give it back to who's supposed to talk -> it's now possible to "mute" everybody. They can still reactivate their micrphone, if you want to force them to mute you can change the room settings right from inside the room using the "gear" icon.
A participant in trouble : give him for a minute the right to share his screen, then cut it off. -> from participant list you can easily give him "presenter" role, and then change it back to "participant"
Common work on the whiteboard ? enable all the class to write, and then disable this permission for all at once when the time is over and the Professor wants to give synthesis -> this can be set in the room's settings, including during the session

Professor wants to call out on a  student to answer a question on the whiteboard ? He give the permission only to this student, for a minute.-> from participant list you can easily give him "presenter" role, and then change it back to "participant"

This kind of workflow is easy for the professor to get used to because it resembles what happens in a class room (call someone to the board, let someone talk after they raised their hand, etc ...)

So, sure the way permissions are handled is different than in Collaborate classic, and one may or may not like it, but now it's clear that it enables to accomodate most of usecases one has for this, which is what the  dev team was aiming for I think : no re-create the buttons but make sure same uses can be handled.


  • You're missing the emojis associated with participants

Emojis next ot participants name was a great way to see instantly, who's confused, who's away, if everyone is back from the break, etc ... Now you can post emojis in the chat, but not sure the emojis for participant status will be back (not in the roadmap that was shown), which is a pity, it may not seem essential but in my opinion it does contribute to give a sense of community and humanity to the group of participants.

It's coming in a feature called "instant feedback" and it's actually pretty cool, the professor can filter by mood and see the chat messages associated with the users in this mood. It stays up for 30 seconds (not sure how I feel about that)


Whiteboard :

It may evolve in future versions, I hope so because for now it's quite un-practical. The main issues I encountered are :

  • You can't erase just one element : when you click on erase it just wipes the whole board (and no Ctrl+Z here ...) : when you use the board alone it's already a challenge to make everything correct right from the start, but with this "extreme eraser" it seems you can forget about collaborating on the whiteboard ...

You can, but for this you shouldn't use the "eraser tool" , instead use the arrow to select the element you want to erase, and then push the "delete" key on your keyboard.

  • You can't add pages : There is this one whiteboard page, and once it's full, or if you want to draw about something else and then get back to this, you can't. This quite prevents from using the whiteboard as a true pedagogic tool, and it becomes more of a gadget.
  • If you leave, you can't get back to it, and you can't save it before leaving. Once you leave the whiteboard, to go share a document or an application, you can't get back to the whiteboard you had, you get to a blank one. You can't save it either. I guess you could take a screenshot, and then go to share a document and share the jpg and take it from there, but it's quite unpractical.

This is a major annoyance and it's high on the list of priorities of the Product Management team, but it requires deep research because they're actually working on global enhancements for the whiteboard, stay posted  


Sharing files :


You can load documents, several of them, and then decide when you want to share them. When you share one it becomes like a whiteboard : you can write/draw on it, which is good and consistent with the "classic" experience.

A few things that would be useful :

  • Be able to actually send the doc to participants (the way what was called file sharing  in "classic" worked: you're actually sending the file to participants for download. It's quite common at the end of a presentation to send the pdf file of the slides, or sometimes send it at the beginning in pptx to enable students to take notes in the comment section of ppt.
  • Be able to save the new annotated document. This way you can share it with participants too at the end, if you've made some annotations/changes to it.

This is on the roadmap. In the meantime I use screenshot capture from my browser, like "awesome screenshot" addon for Chrome

  • Be able to juggle with several documents and go from one to the other without loosing what you were doing (writing drawing) and where you were in the doc.

To get to a result with those 3 aspects, I ended up using Googleslides to be able to go easily from one doc to another, to edit some, and to be able to save and send the results.


Application sharing :


When accessing both as a Professor and as a guest, I was surprise to see the quality/resolution of what the students get is very low, and quite often it can make the document/app unreadable for them.

One way to compensate this a bit it to actually reduce the size of the window of the application, but it still often is quite blurry for participants. I know many of our Professors have some old school powerpoint with a lot of text on their slides : they wouldn't be able to share it this way (which is maybe a good thing it avoids "death by powerpoint" for their students) . For finance or accounting and sharing excel with numbers and formulas it can quickly become very uncomfortable for students with this kind of poor resolution.



The new design and UI are a huge leap forward, as well as the full web approach. To be honnest, most of the time when I presented the tool in its "classic" version to a Professor interested in using it I often apologized for the "look" of the tool first and then promised it would be compensated by the features and potential ... I'm glad I won't have to do that anymore ! The gap in terms of user experience is huge, it definitely participates to make the product credible for new users. Congrats to the Product Team on that (ping Carl Marrelli )

On the other hand, many of the "classroom" features are still missing or have become unpracticle , so it seems more to me like "another hangout/skype" than a true virtual classroom. The key adoption point, as such, and as opposed to hangout or skype, is that it's fully integrated in Learn and thus easier to deploy to students.

I'm looking forward to discover how the tool evolves by the time we decide to roll it out for our Faculty ! Maybe the Product Team has identified the pitfalls I mention above and are working or solutions or alternatives

(UP : it's definitely more than "another skype/hangout" now, since last september it has become a true teaching tool, and is developped at a steady rhythm to be enhanced for this use.)