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Long the leader in the LMS space, Blackboard has experienced its share of setbacks in the past few years, as competitors such as D2L Brightspace and Canvas by Instructure (which is perceived to be more user-friendly and modern) have eaten into its market share. However, Blackboard continues to bank on its depth of industry expertise and its promising new features, particularly the Ultra experience for its Learn LMS and accessibility tool Ally, as ways to reduce customer churn and reestablish itself as a modern, best-in-class ed tech provider.

Blackboard's Ultra experience and Ally provide a competitive edge

Ultra remains the biggest topic of conversation, and the most anticipated for Blackboard customers. After a troubled beginning, Learn SaaS migration has increased rapidly, encompassing 349 Blackboard customers as of May 2018. Of those institutions, 45 are using the Ultra experience in production (an institution can only be on Ultra after it's migrated to a SaaS instance, as Ultra requires the more flexible architecture and workflows enabled by SaaS). In addition, over a hundred other schools are participating in a cohort of prospective candidates for Ultra. As more customers migrate to a SaaS environment, it's expected that those numbers will accelerate: Blackboard reports that over 12,000 users from 3,000 institutions have previewed Ultra on the company's website.

Ultra is not intended to be a replacement of Original, but instead provides a different user experience, distinguished by its mobile-first design and a more personalized, intuitive user interface. Some compelling features include enhancing its originality checker, SafeAssign, to track student responses in essays and tests, and embedding analytics directly into workflows so that faculty are immediately aware if students are at risk. To increase institutional comfort, Blackboard is providing a "dual course mode," in which schools can explore both Original and Ultra experiences.

Of course, Blackboard is not staking its future primarily in terms of its LMS, but based on its whole portfolio of products and services that give its customers greater value across the entire campus (including offerings such as its web conferencing platform Collaborate, accessibility tool Ally, and card and credential solution Transact). Ally in particular has been highly beneficial for institutions – with its ability to increase accessibility for students with different learning abilities – and for Blackboard itself, which reports that around 300 institutions have licensed the product since its release one year ago.

With these promising figures, the tide seems to be turning in Blackboard's favor (the company has even recently seen win-backs from other vendors). While Ovum is optimistic, the future – and the number of schools that will adopt Ultra or opt to remain with Blackboard – remains unclear. The vendor will need to continue enhancing Ultra, and communicate clearly with its clients about Ultra's benefits, as well as its other portfolio offerings, so that institutions can gain the maximum value from their Blackboard experience.


Further reading

"Blackboard's community shares best practices for learning analytics," ENV006-000014 (February 2018)

On the Radar: Blackboard Ally increases educational accessibility, IT0008-000319 (September 2017)


Joyce Kim, Analyst, Education Technology

[email protected]