Accessibility in the classroom—tools that impact my students

Today’s post was written by Robin Lowell, a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, special education, science and mathematics teacher, as well as teacher of blind and visually impaired students.

Creating a collaborative, inclusive classroom has many moving parts and pieces—and finding the right balance can be challenging. As a special education teacher, I am constantly on the hunt for technology and tools that give students with disabilities an environment that is personalized, differentiated and yet as close to their peers’ experience as possible. I have been an itinerant teacher, a distance education math teacher at a residential school and currently a resource room teacher—without the resource room. One goal of an inclusive classroom is to have all students working and collaborating throughout the day as much as possible, which takes planning, tools and creativity. When I work with my students and determine how to meet their needs, I think a lot about their accommodations rather than their modifications. The outcomes for a student can have a very dramatic effect on their learning.

In my accompanying blog post, “Accommodations versus modifications in an inclusive classroom,” I outline the important differences between accommodations and modifications to accessibly personalizing student learning. With Windows 10 and Office 365—free for teachers and students—I have been able to find and use many of the accommodations that I have been looking for making consumption of materials, content creation, collaboration and organization possible for students using the same technology and tools as their peers.

These tools help my students to consume content, create content, collaborate inclusively and stay organized.

Consuming content

With Windows 10 and Office 365, students can personalize how they consume content.

Learning Tools—Creates opportunities for accommodations for users, including listening and following along with the text instead of having the reading modified or shortened, which creates richer content for the student. A student can also use the dictate mode to create text for a paper or assignment. Learning Tools is a game changer. To learn more, read this blog post from Lauren Pittman, my fellow Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, and listen to her TeacherCast podcast.

Reading mode—Another tool that makes reading and consuming content much easier. Reading mode takes away all the distractions by stripping away advertisements and toolbars, leaving the user with a clean background and a clear font that is easier to read. I use this with my students with dyslexia, have ADHD or are easily distracted to help them stay focused and on task. Reading mode is available in in both the Edge Browser and Word.

Ease of access center—Allows the user to modify how their computer looks and how they access content. Over the last year, a lot of thought and effort has gone into improving the ease of access center experience for users. Office 365 usability in high contrast mode has been significantly enhanced, improving the user’s experience through bolder colors, cleaner graphics and increased usability with shapes and charts.

This gif shows how to turn on High Contrast Mode on a PC to see a spreadsheet in Excel Online with less eye strain if you have a visual impairment. With this mode turned on, tables, active cell and cells selection outlines are shown to be clearly visible, hyperlinks in sheets are shown respecting High Contrast theme colors and shapes and charts are shown being rendered using High Contrast theme colors.

How to turn on High Contrast mode in PCs and use Excel Online with less eye strain.

Magnifier—The ease of access center allows the user to magnify the screen in three different ways such as “Docked,” which has a portion of the screen magnified; “Lens,” which is like a magnifying glass; and “Whole Screen,” which magnifies the entire screen. Turning Magnifier on or off, as well as increasing or decreasing the magnification, is now easier than ever.

Creating content

Creating, researching and reviewing content in an effective way is a great challenge for many of my students. Students who use screen readers struggle trying to get around the computer efficiently without using too many steps and clicks. When I introduced my students to the “Tell me what you want to do” feature in Office, I was a hero. To activate the feature, you can either click Tell Me on the ribbon in Office 2016 and Office Online or use the keyboard shortcut Alt+Q and type in what you need. For example, if you want to start researching a topic, just type in “Researcher” and it will take you to the feature you want within the Office application. Learn more about Tell Me here.

Researcher—A new feature in Word that helps students find reliable resources and content. Students have great ideas around what they would like to write but often struggle to get started. Researcher helps them overcome those mental roadblocks with access to strong ideas and supporting content. This will change the way my students start their research. Learn more about Researcher here. Note that Researcher is rolling out to Office 365 subscribers using Word 2016 on Windows desktops, so you might not see it yet.

Accessibility Checker—The Accessibility Checker tool scans a document for accessibility problems and is accessed from the Review tab in Word, Excel and PowerPoint for PCs and Macs. It is also available in Sway and OneNote. By the end of the year, it will be available in even more apps, including Office Online apps and Outlook. Learn more about the Accessibility Checker in Office here.

In this gif, accessibility checker is shown being opened from the “More options” pane in a Sway being created in a web browser. Sway has pre-populated the alt text with the descriptions that were available when images were imported from Word, PowerPoint, PDF and online sources while creating the Sway. For images that were uploaded from a local drive, it has pre-populated the alt text with the file name. While running the accessibility checker, the author of the Sway is given a chance to review the default alt text and edit it.

Simulation of the Accessibility Checker in Sway.

Editor—A newly released and rolling out feature in Word and Outlook for PCs. This tool helps students write impactful, collaborative documents with one clear and confident voice. It is a game changer for many of my students, especially those with dyslexia. Watch Editor in action here.

In this gif, spelling and grammar checker in Word desktop increases the likelihood of finding corrections even when the typed word is very different from the intended word, in this case “approximately,” reducing the occurrence of “No Suggestions.”

Editor in Word increases the likelihood of finding spelling corrections.

PowerPoint Designer—Often, students become so hung up on the design process when creating a PowerPoint presentation that the content itself becomes the secondary focus. PowerPoint Designer helps the user create beautiful looking slides without having to manually format pictures, create bulleted lists or place graphics. With an automatic image description service coming to PowerPoint early next year, photos that can be recognized with high confidence and the alt-text added automatically, allowing a screen reader to read the picture to the user. Learn more about PowerPoint Designer here.

OneNote—The app where many of my students choose to create content. They never have to worry about saving, and they have access to multi-modal forms of information. For example, a student can complete a worksheet by dictating answers into Learning Tools and copying them into the worksheet in Word or in OneNote. Previously, the task would’ve been modified or the student would’ve been altogether excused from completing it. With OneNote, however, the student has the same opportunity and access as the rest of the class and is empowered to complete the assignment in a timely manner. There are great trainings, samples and more for OneNote on the Microsoft Educator Community here.

Collaborating inclusively

Students with disabilities can struggle with group work, either because they don’t have access to the materials like other group members or because they struggle to communicate with those other group members. These students have a lot to offer in collaborative settings, though, and Windows 10 and Office 365 will help them do so by contributing in their preferred format, one that is easily compatible with the preferred formats of the other group members.

Word with Office 365 will soon let screen readers more effectively announce comments and track changes. This will give the student meaningful and enriching roles to play in a group setting. In the Skype Preview app, in the latest Windows 10, Skype Translator capabilities are built right in. Skype Translator will translate conversations in real time. The possibilities and applications are endless. A student who is deaf or hard of hearing can discuss a project with a peer or teacher, or listen to a lecture without the benefit of a translator, all through a Skype call. Other possibilities include parent meetings where the parent doesn’t speak English. Learn more about and get Skype and Skype Translator for Windows here.

Staying organized

Organization is a struggle for all students, and students with learning disabilities seem to struggle more than most.

Office Lens is an app that trims, enhances and makes pictures of whiteboards and documents readable. This is great for students who lose work, as it means they will always have a backup copy.

A student who has a visual impairment can independently and accurately scan the document using the voice guidance feature coming soon in Office Lens for iOS. They can then turn it into a PDF or text and format in whatever way best suits their needs: large print, audio or even Braille via a transcription program. Voice guidance and an Immersive Reader (like in Learning Tools mentioned above) is also coming to Office Lens soon. Learn more and download Office Lens here.

OneNote has been my go-to for student organization for several years. Students can have their work automatically saved in one place and in their format of choice: type or handwriting, audio or video. Learning Tools and dictation are available directly within the program. Since OneNote is a cloud-based app, students can access it from wherever they are, from any device, making completing and staying on top of tasks much easier.

In this image, a teacher has written examples for a polynomials lesson using digital ink in OneNote.

Math expressions written into OneNote with digital ink.

Using the Office 365—free for teachers and students—and Windows 10 tools has changed my students’ educational experience. When students graduate from high school and enter college or the workplace, they are equipped with productivity and collaboration tools, and skills they will use throughout their lives.

—Robin Lowell

Robin Lowell at the exhibition booth with the Microsoft Office team at Closing the Gap conference.

Robin Lowell is a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert who has years of experience working as a special education, science and mathematics teacher, as well as teacher of blind and visually impaired students. At the Closing the Gap conference this week, she is partnering with Microsoft Office Product Managers to showcase the technologies she finds most impactful for creating inclusive learning environments. You can follow Robin on Twitter at: @teacherinthebox.

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