Northern Illinois University has earned a reputation for seamless integration and upgrades of instructional technology tools. The secret is planning, says Jason Rhode, assistant director of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. Here he offers a few suggestions for getting an upgrade right.

Allow plenty of time. NIU allowed about nine months for its Blackboard Learn upgrade, which allowed plenty of time to prepare the campus.

Don’t start from scratch. NIU tapped into SLATE (Supporting Learning And Technology in Education), the Midwest Blackboard users group, to find out what worked — and hadn’t worked — during other schools’ upgrades. “We asked what questions we should be asking and what gotchas we should be watching out for,” Rhode says.

Avoid surprises. Communicate upcoming changes early and often. Explain what’s happening many times and via multiple channels. NIU’s upgrade communication plan worked so well that other universities have borrowed it.

Get faculty input. Whenever possible, allow faculty to influence the schedule. It will increase buy-in and may help you circumvent problems. For example, NIU gave faculty a say about when the upgrade to Blackboard Collaborate 12 would take place, better ensuring it happened at a time least disruptive to faculty.

Provide previews to faculty. Do a soft launch of the upgraded tools by offering faculty a test drive that guides them through the most beneficial features. You’ll get better buy-in, and faculty might identify a glitch or two.

Stay synced with IT. Rhode and others at NIU’s Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center stay in constant communication with information technology — even when an upgrade is not in the works — so when a major project makes good collaboration essential, they already have a solid foundation. “You have to build up trust,” Rhode says. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Think about more than just technical changes. Consider how upgrades and new features may create workflow changes, too, and add these into your communication plan.

Test, test, test. Then test again. Much of the nine months NIU dedicated to its Blackboard Learn update was spent on testing on two fronts. As IT conducted technical tests, the faculty development group conducted functional tests to gauge how the new tools would work for instructors.

If you’re looking to for more help panning for your latest upgrade, make sure to join an Upgrade Cohort. The Upgrade Cohorts feature a weekly series of virtual meetings designed to better prepare you for an upgrade, giving you an opportunity to network with others who are moving along a similar path and seeking advice on the latest best practices from Blackboard and your peers. Blackboard offers a 9.1 Upgrade Cohort and a Service Pack Upgrade Cohort. For more information, please visit

Jason Rhode serves as the Assistant Director of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at Northern Illinois University where he is responsible for developing and offering training programs and support for faculty and staff on teaching with technology and related topics, providing leadership on technology-related issues, and performing supervisory functions at the Center.

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