Making a difference – NSW Education and Office 365 changing school culture.

Two students standing outside in a school looking at a laptop screen

Making a difference – how NSW Education is changing school culture.

Drop in on any classroom in NSW and you’ll find that one in five students have a learning difficulty (ABS 2016). Some struggle to read small print on a white background, others need text to be read out loud. And for some, the physical act of writing is impossible.

To support these students, the NSW Department of Education is at the forefront of creating a vital change in school culture across the State. They’re doing this through a ‘Train the Trainer’ program, that instructs teachers on how make learning more accessible through small but impactful changes in the way they use Microsoft Office 365 to ensure the classroom is a safe and inclusive place of learning. And the results are already being felt.

Down on the south coast, sandwiched between lush Australian bushland and crystal clear ocean, lies Ulladulla High School, the only high school in the area. Some 250 of its 1240 students have the need for an adjusted curriculum due to special learning needs, one of whom is Jacob – a tech-savvy year 7 student.

Both he and his sister were born with a rare condition called oculocutaneous albinism. It causes a vision impairment, making it hard for Jacob to see objects, images and read at the same rate as his peers. In previous schools the primary solution was to print documents using extra-large fonts – a slow and tedious process. But now Leslie Braman, his Vision Itinerant Support Teacher is using Microsoft Office 365 to open up a world of opportunities. Firstly, by making sure that everything the school produces for Jacob is accessible, simply by having his classroom teachers check that it is, through using a check accessibility button in the review mode.

“Group projects are really easy now. If everyone creates accessible documents by using styles and the check accessibility feature, I can work really easily with them.” Jacob is also using Immersive Reader in OneNote to increase the font size, change the background colour to black with white text for maximum contrast, and opt sometimes to have texts read to him. It’s made a big difference to his learning. “With Immersive Reader I’m able to change the way I read text to suit me – so I don’t hold anyone up. It’s really, really cool”.

The way that technology can support people with learning difficulties has inspired Jacob to become a coder and develop a range of accessibility apps for people like himself in later life. “I think apps like Office Lens and Write Ideas are just incredible. I’m hoping to one day be able to create apps like that, so I can make it easier for people like me, to go about their work”.

“Technology is an obsession for Jacob, and these tools are giving him the opportunity to say, ‘what else do I need, and how can I develop it myself?’. And it’s great to know that for whatever he wants to do, there will be technology to support him.” Sharon Clear – Jacob’s Mother

Family standing outside on school grounds

“Right now, he wants to develop apps for people with disabilities. If he does go on to do so, we’ll look back and know that this is what helped to mold his ideas about how technology can help people with special needs.” Darren Clear – Jacob’s Father

How accessible is your teaching? 5 small changes that can make a huge difference.

“Essential for some. Useful for all.” That’s the way Greg Alchin, Deputy Chairperson, Department of Education Disability Employee Network describes the accessibility features in Office 365. Vision impaired himself, he understands only too well the challenges of learning, not just for students with vision or hearing impairments, but for those with autism, dyslexia and other conditions. Statistically, 20% of students in our schools have a learning disability of some description. Giving them equal opportunities to learn has always been a priority for the NSW Department of Education. And now, with every school, teacher and student having access to Microsoft Office 365 they’re delivering a training package to that shows how a few small adjustments to the way you teach and the tools you introduce to students can make a huge difference.

Here are five things you can do in your classroom to help every student in your class – not just the 20% with known challenges.

1. Check Accessibility
In the Review Tab in Office 365, simply click on the Check Accessibility button to see if your document – test, assignment, teaching notes – can be read aloud. The key is to use styles and avoid using the return key to create space on the page, which can be done in the paragraph styles. That way when your document is being read it can alert the reader – “Heading: Year 5 test”. “Subheading: Answer any two questions”. “Subheading. Question One”. You can immediately grasp the difference this makes to vision impaired students or those who respond better to the spoken word. Plus, by applying styles, you’ll be learning some good writing habits yourself!

2. Learning Tools
Learning Tools gives students new ways to approach learning tasks in Word, OneNote, Outlook, Office Lens or ePubs. The Immersive Reader is a standout. It enables students to have a text read to them, giving vision-impaired students learning independence and putting them on an equal footing with their peers. The Dictation tool allows students for whom writing is an impossibility to record their thoughts without writing. And the contrast tool is a powerful decoding aid for dyslexic students. Learning tools don’t just make a huge difference to students with learning difficulties, they can increase fluency for English language learners and help emerging readers to progress to higher levels.

3. Office Lens
This app is a game changer. A free download, it enables students to snap a photo of, for example, the class whiteboard, a printed page or rough sketch on paper. They can then import it into OneNote, OneDrive, Word, PowerPoint, Outlook or Immersive Reader where it appears as editable text. Just from a research perspective it’s a huge time-saver, enabling every student to collate information quickly without having to rekey. For students with reading difficulties it means that text can then be enlarged or different fonts or colour backgrounds to make it more accessible. Now even the school canteen pricelist can be quickly scanned and read back to a blind student. Plus, teachers can save a lot of time after team brainstorming meetings by simply photographing the whiteboard ready to take the next step – from sharing to editing!

4. Edge
Edge, the browser in Windows 10 comes with e-reading capabilities, which means students can read ePub books directly in the browser without needing a special app. It features a progress bar, the ability to resume where you left off, bookmarks, and a customisable reading view so you can change colours and fonts, and hide pictures to help students focus. The accessibility advantage comes from the ability to use Learning Tools with ePubs in Edge, opening up all the customisation opportunities described above.

5. Presentation Translator
Presentation Translator is a new add-in to PowerPoint that translates and subtitles live presentations, displaying subtitles directly on a presentation in any one of more than 60 languages. By unmuting the microphone, teachers can also allow students to ask questions by typing or speaking, which are displayed for all to see. This enables hearing impaired students to follow along with the class on their phone, tablet or computer and participate in the discussion without requiring assistance.

Student in a classroom working on a laptop with the teacher

Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility design principles in its software, apps and devices is helping all students – not just those with learning difficulties. For example; Skype translator capabilities are built into Windows 10, enable teachers to translate conversation in real-time. So 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. Skype Translator for Windows is available here. With tools like this, Microsoft is disabling barriers and providing accessible and inclusive opportunities, so that every student has the support they need.