Distance Learning | Feature

School for Blind Leads the Way in Distance Learning

Microsoft Lync proves invaluable when teachers and students can't be together.

A unique school in Washington state is using a communications and collaboration platform normally deployed in corporate settings to bring a teacher working from a home office together with her students sitting in a physical classroom. While the setup is invaluable for this math class, it's also a practical model for business continuity showing how classes can be run in the event of disruptions caused by weather, pandemics, and disaster scenarios.

Since 1886 the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB) in Vancouver has provided educational services to visually impaired and blind students. According to Sherry Hahn, digital research and curriculum coordinator, many of the 70 students who physically attend classes at the campus also board at the school during the week. Another 373 around the state take advantage of the school's outreach component, which uses "itinerant teachers" who are contracted to work in specific districts.

Superintendent Dean Stenehjem has always believed that the students attending his school should have equal access to digital materials, said Hahn. So when the state introduced a new program in 2004 called the Digital Learning Commons that exploited a statewide broadband network to classrooms to provide online courses, a digital library, and other technology tools to students and teachers in Washington, "he jumped on board immediately."

But the school soon discovered that accessibility was going to turn out to be a big issue in many of those offerings. "It's a combination of things that create non-accessible learning," Hahn noted. Obstacles can be as simple as the use of PDFs of pages saved as JPG instead of text files, making them unrecognizable by screen readers used by blind and visually impaired students or as complex as teachers who don't know how to explain concepts clearly enough to the students.

To cross the chasm between the potential of digital learning and its reality, the school hired Hahn in 2006 to figure out what was needed on the digital front to make courses accessible. By 2009 WSSB was experimenting with video conferencing. The results were less than satisfying. (More about that in a moment.)

At the same time one of the school's math teachers had decided to retire. A national search for a replacement led the school to make a job offer to Robin Lowell, who possessed that rare combination: training as a math educator as well as certification and experience in teaching the blind and visually impaired. As Hahn declared, "I refer to Robin as an endangered species. When we found her and we hired her, we were absolutely thrilled."

But a week after accepting the offer, Lowell found out that her family needed to move to the Seattle area, about 165 miles north. Rather than starting the search over, the school chose to work with Lowell remotely and figure out just how far it could push technology to serve its students.

Choosing the Best Teacher
The initial efforts to use video conferencing to connect Lowell from her home to the students in the classroom were far from satisfying. "The kids who could see me, could see me. The kids who could hear me could hear me. I couldn’t interact with them aside from that," recalled Lowell.

By 2010, the school had heard about Lync, Microsoft's IP-based unified communications application. The program, which has gained far more adoption by large enterprises than in school districts, combines a number of communication and collaboration functions, including voice and video, instant messaging, presence, collaboration, and scheduling.

Hahn put evaluation of Lync into the hands of the school's IT expert, Ed Lukowski, who came back with a thumbs up. Among its advantages over other applications tested out by the school: Lync can be controlled totally through the keyboard. That's an important consideration for users with limited or no vision, since they don't generally use a mouse to perform computing activities.

The school licensed Lync for an on-premises installation. (However, the recent release of Office 365 for Education includes most of the components of Lync and is free as a cloud service for educational institutions.)

Lowell became the test pilot that same year. Now, says Hahn, "The fact that Robin's not physically there is just irrelevant to students."

Lowell concurs. The video conferencing feature of Lync allows her to "greet" students as they enter the classroom from a large display at the front of the room. She can view the entire classroom just as if she were sitting there. With desktop sharing, she can also virtually "walk" around the room and view every student's work "every moment of the class--which is a luxury that a standard class doesn't have." Lync is also used to shuttle assignments and homework back and forth. The students use instant messaging to ask questions in private. "There are so many levels of interaction, we do forget we're not in the same room," she noted.

Robin Lowell teaches students at the Washingtons State School for the Blind from a large monitor at the front of the classroom. Photo courtesy of Washington State School for the Blind.

How Lync Works in the Classroom
Lowell teaches a couple of courses each semester. In the coming year it will be algebra 1 and algebra 2. Each of those is expected to have about six students in the classroom and another three or four at remote sites.

The typical student set-up includes a computer (netbooks last year), a headset, a standard QWERTY keyboard, and a Braille display, which converts text into Braille and vice versa. On Lowell's end, she uses a laptop computer, which is hooked to a secondary monitor, on which she displays all of the student desktops so she can watch what they're doing. She also uses a document camera with a small whiteboard. For students with low vision, she can write examples on that board that they can see in blown up fashion on their monitors. Those same students likewise have document cameras too, in order for Lowell to view their work as they're writing it out by hand.

In other words, with one or two additions, the technical apparatus isn't much different for these students than for their sighted peers.

What is different is how a blind or low vision student tackles a math problem. According to Lowell and Hahn, Braille is linear and math tends to be an ambiguous language.

"When you're talking to a blind student, you have to give a very rich verbal description of what's happening," Lowell explained. If a student is working with a fraction, for example, for a sighted student it's simply a numerator over the denominator. In Braille it'd be the open fraction indicator, the number, the divide sign, the number, and then the close fraction indicator. "The students have to be able to hear every piece of the problem as they're going through," she added. "And they have to keep a lot of the information in their head."

The use of Lync has turned out to be a crucial aspect of keeping the class interactive and helping Lowell to have the kind of personal interaction she'd have if she were physically present in the classroom. "We spend the first couple of minutes of class just talking about how their evening was, what's going on in their lives. The ones who can see me walk up to the TV and talk to me like we're talking face to face," she noted.

That connection in turn has helped Lowell deliver an education to her students on par with what their sighted peers are receiving. "We can connect. We can talk. We can work through problems. They can get their assignments and tests back quicker because we don't send them by snail mail," she said. "We can actually move through things at their pace. That's the key. That's the real reason they're getting an education that would be equivalent to their sighted peers. They're getting it at the pace they need, with the tools they need, with the teacher who understands their needs. Those are the three things this technology is allowing us--to reach these kids in a way they understand."

A Unique Twist with Broad Applicability
Even though WSSB has put what Hahn called a "unique twist" on the use of Lync, she considers it a "hard product to beat" for distance learning. "It works. It's solid. It's mainstream. I really haven't yet found a real downside," she said.

And that's why she also believes the application should find ready use in scenarios where teachers and students can't be together in person, whether by virtue of disaster, health issues, or other scenarios where students and their educators are better off at home than in school.

"This technology has so many amazing components that are applicable to education," Lowell noted. "This system allows the best teachers to reach the correct kids--be it a kid who just can't get to the school or a kid who is really, really good at math and their school doesn't offer it, where they can connect to a classroom that is the right fit. Getting these kids into the right class is basically just a click away."