School for the Blind Bridges Distances With Microsoft Lync

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Dec. 8, 2011 – The scene in Robin Lowell’s high school algebra class mirrors classrooms across the country. The teacher is at the front of the room, patiently explaining tricky math concepts. Students frequently raise their hands and ask questions when they’re stuck.

Robin Lowell uses Microsoft Lync to teach students at Washington State School for the Blind, roughly 140 miles away from her Snoqualmie, Wash., home.

Two differences set this classroom apart: the students are visually impaired, and the teacher is a three-hour drive away.

Lowell (Miss Lo to her students) teaches math remotely to students at the Washington State School for the Blind. She uses Microsoft Lync from her Snoqualmie, Wash., home to start a video conference and talk integers with the students in Vancouver, Wash., roughly 140 miles away. The result is a lively, interactive lesson that makes the distance between them an afterthought, she said.

“It is basically like being in a real classroom,” Lowell said. “Lync’s clarity and reliability has improved the teaching experience a lot. The only time we have had problems with Lync is when I lost electricity.”

The Washington State School for the Blind has long embraced technology in the classroom; since 2003, its distance learning program has connected teachers and students throughout the state. This is the second semester the school has used Lync, and it’s been a positive experience for teachers and students alike.

“It makes it easier that if we have problem, we can talk to Miss Lo,” said Chris, a visually impaired student in the algebra class. “And if I get snowed in at home in Spokane, with Lync I wouldn’t miss my class!”

The students sit in a classroom with a webcam and a large display monitor in front of them. Using laptops, screen readers, braille displays and Lync, the students can take notes during the lesson, share their work with Lowell, and get help via IM. With Lync, Lowell can launch a virtual whiteboard where she can write numbers and equations. Student can share their desktops with her so they can work together one on one, or Lowell can share her whiteboard with the entire class and walk them through a problem step by step. And because she can see the students, Lowell knows when they need extra attention or help.

“If I get snowed in at home in Spokane, with Lync I wouldn’t miss my class!” said Chris, a visually impaired student in Lowell’s algebra class.

A few weeks ago, two Microsoft employees from the Lync team sat in on the classroom for some learning of their own. Pooja Malpani, software development engineer, and Purvi Vaidya, software development engineer in test, visited the Washington State School for the Blind to get feedback on Lync and offer support. The school got in touch with them after they wrote a blog post highlighting Lync’s accessibility features.

Both worked on those features, and they said it was humbling to see Lync help Lowell’s students as they wrestled with algebra – just like any other students.

“Being there with the students, I saw firsthand the impact Lync was having on the lives of the students and teachers,” Malpani said. “It made career choices possible for the kids that otherwise would not have been viable. The geographical boundaries were being bridged, connecting teachers and students physically apart and yet being together in a virtual classroom.”

At the school, the two also heard about a visually impaired girl based in Seattle who attended a programming class from her home. The story illustrated how Lync and unified communications software can tear down more than just physical barriers. “It’s even harder for her to go to Vancouver and travel three hours,” Vaidya said. “It would be so useful for her to be able to take those classes remotely and benefit from the power that Lync provides users who don’t face her challenges. So I think we can create a difference in people’s lives by bridging this gap.”

That sentiment was shared by Sherry Hahn, the Washington State School for the Blind’s digital learning coordinator, and Ed Lukowski, its IT specialist. They said they’d like to offer Lowell’s algebra class nationwide via Web conferencing. The goal is to narrow the gap between students with special needs and teachers who can assist them using technology, they said.

Accessibility = Good Business

Malpani and Vaidya’s visit happened to come just before Lync’s first birthday. Kirk Gregersen, general manager for Lync, celebrated the milestone on Dec. 1 with a look back on the product’s rapid adoption. Nearly 3 million enterprise users rely on Lync in the office, he said, including LA Fitness, which is saving more than $650,000 a year with Lync, and Swisscom, which rolled out Lync across its entire 15,000 employees and has saved $17 million.

Vaidya and Malpani said Lync’s success at the school highlights the value of accessibility features in Microsoft’s products.

“It’s not only the right thing to do; it makes complete business sense. These are our customers,” Malpani said. “If you can take an action in three steps, there’s no reason why a person with a disability needs 30 steps to do the same action.”

More and more people are using what the industry has labeled accessibility features, Vaidya added. At home, for example, her family hooks up their laptops to a large monitor and use a high-resolution setting. Voice command features are now popular among mobile users. That’s why she thinks accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought during the product development cycle but rather a key focus.

“All this momentum is a win-win for product features as well as the accessibility space,” Vaidya said. “These features aren’t just for accessibility needs but are helping improve things for everyone.”

Dean Stenehjem, superintendent of the Washington State School for the Blind, said that the software features used at the school will be increasingly important for society at large. “Aging America needs things to be visually accessible,” he said. “Every time a new piece of software comes out, if it is made better for blind people, it will become better for sighted people, too.”

Vaidya and Malpani had competitive pressures in mind as they listened to feedback about Lync from the school’s teachers and administrators. Lowell suggested improvements to the whiteboard, for example, and the school’s programming teacher thought the user interface could be more intuitive, making it easier to discover features.

They’ll keep that feedback in mind as they help build the next version of Lync. Malpani said that the product team wasn’t sure if customers with accessibility needs would use the whiteboard feature, but they treated it as an accessibility feature anyway. “Had the customer not connected with us, we never would have thought of a scenario where a math teacher would use Lync and a whiteboard to teach lessons,” she said. “Sometimes we build those feature not knowing who will use them, but then a customer finds a use and we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re really glad we built that.’”

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