Lync and Skype help to improve education for visually impaired students

Washington State School for the Blind uses communication tools to connect students to expert teachers

Sean Dudley
Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley on 10 February 2014
Lync and Skype help to improve education for visually impaired students

The Washington State School for the Blind is capitalising on the benefits of Microsoft Lync and Skype to improve the educational experience of visually impaired and blind students.

Teachers that are experienced with visually impaired students and are able to teach the Nemeth Braille Code are hard to come by. The Washington State School for the Blind hired Robin Lowell, a maths teacher with this rare experience, in 2009. But due to familial circumstance, Lowell moved to Seattle shortly after, forcing the school to consider their options.

Instead of looking to recruit a replacement they knew would be hard to find, the school turned to Microsoft Lync to enable Lowell to remotely teach Algebra I and II to the schools’ ninth to twelfth graders.

“At first we tried to use basic teleconferencing but it didn’t work out,” explains Lowell. “Teaching math to the visually impaired and blind is a massive challenge. The teacher must use very detailed speech patterns, but verbal description alone is never enough.”

“Lync is totally keyboard controlled and is therefore better for blind students,” explains Sherry Hahn, the digital research and development coordinator for The Washington State School for the Blind. “With the addition of ‘screen reader’ devices, students can work with their teacher on math problems in real time. And the low vision students can use ‘screen enhancement’ to see the ‘whiteboard’ function in Lync.”

The Washington State School for the Blind hosts some 69 to 72 students on campus per year. The school’s mandate however is to serve the whole of Washington State, and currently works with 2,000 students a year from various communities.

With the Lync-based arrangement, students sit facing the front of the class as they ordinarily would, and the teacher is projected onto a screen. Students are also able to join in the class remotely.

“Lync is straightforward and is a one-stop-shop,” says Lowell. “There’s no need to log in to a bunch of different apps. The IM function is very useful too so everyone can communicate directly with me. All of the students get what they need, when they need it.”

The school’s students and teachers are also using Skype to collaborate and communicate both in and out of the classroom. Skype enables Lowell to tutor students and often uses the document camera for a Skype video call, enabling her to generate a real time white board for low vision students.

“We’ve also taught a computer programming class over Skype with students as far away as Texas,” added Hahn. “And, on top of it all, our students are getting a great education in technology skills. We’re creating a model that can really help visually impaired and blind students to learn math skills no matter where they live. And we believe it can be used throughout the country.”

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