Accessibility Is At The HEART Of Microsoft & Office365

Update 23rd June:

Since writing this blog I see that the Microsoft Garage have also released a new product called MS Dictate which is a plugin for Outlook, Word and Powerpoint that allows you to dictate text using the same speech-to-text engine used by Cortana. You can download it for free here.

Recently I’ve been working with a partner that has a school for deaf and hearing impaired students as a customer. It’s been really interesting exploring how technology is used in environments like this, where the need for video communication to enable sign language is paramount.

As a result, I’ve been digging into the accessibility options within Microsoft’s Windows 10 and Office365 products and it has reinforced the observations I’ve noticed already since joining Microsoft at the start of the year: accessibility and inclusive design really is at the heart of all Microsoft products.

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Accessibility is a priority for Microsoft for three key reasons:

  1. We cannot realise our mission to empower every person and organisation to achieve more without accessibility
  2. Accessibility is our path to innovation
  3. Our public sector customers are required to procure accessible products

At every major internal Microsoft event I’ve attended this year there has been automatic transcription / captioning of speakers so that deaf or hearing impaired employees can follow along. 5% of the world population (around 360 million people) have some form of hearing difficulty, so the need to use technology to include them in business activities is very real.

However, hearing impediments is not the only area where accessibility in Windows 10 and Office365 is helping:

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As I’ve researched more about the various accessibility features I’ve come across some great customer testimonials and case studies about how Windows 10 and Office365 are making a big difference for them on a daily basis. Below is one about Ted Hart who works at Microsoft and was part of the team that improved Skype Translator for English captions/subtitles resulting in deaf people being able to take part in conversations normally:

The next case study is entitled The Power Of Visual Communication showing how Skype video allows students with disabilities to be able to communicate with each other, even when on work experience. The visual nature of Skype means they can use both sign language and also read body language:

Finally, Al Amal School for Deaf Students in the United Arab Emirates shares how the use of tools like Office Mix and video recording in OneNote is proving valuable with their students:

There are numerous blogs from Microsoft that focus on specifically on accessibility  and Microsoft has a dedicated Disability Help Desk that supports video calling with American Sign Language:

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Marlee Matlin, the only deaf performer to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, demonstrated how the help desk works:

Translator Tools:

Microsoft have leveraged a number of translator tools that use Machine Learning and the Intelligent Cloud to provide greater accessibility support for all users, particularly those that are hard of hearing:

  1. Skype Translator: not only does this do real-time translations between different languages it can be re-purposed to provide an effective transcription of an English to English conversation to support deaf participants.
  2. Microsoft Translator phone app: Similar in functionality to Skype Translator, this app for your phone allows you to do transcriptions and translations (over 60 languages) and you can do multi-person chats on the same device or with up to 100 participants by sharing a conversation code.
  3. Presentation Translator: A project from the Microsoft Garage, this looks to be a plugin for PowerPoint that will provide real-time captioning on the PowerPoint itself from the speech of the presenter. This is not available yet but is coming soon in a beta trial.
  4. Skype Broadcast: The premier Skype meeting tool (available in O365 E5 plans), this will provide real time transcription of the Skype meeting so all participants can follow along.

Other Tools:

Outside of the straight translation tools above, Microsoft are building accessibility into a range of other products that are available now to customers:

  1. Video Indexer: This was formerly know as Video Breakdown in the Azure Media Analytics Suite and is currently in free trial. This tool allows you to automatically transcribe speech in a video, OCR scan text contained within the video, provide facial recognition and then index and search across all this content. It’s incredibly powerful.
  2. Microsoft Stream: Announced only today from Microsoft as being Generally Available (GA), this is built right into Office365 subscriptions and is a video library tool that also offers speech-to-text, facial recognition and searchable indexes. With granular sharing permissions this is a powerful tool.
  3. Accessibility Checker: Build directly into Office365, this tool scans your documents and identifies ways you can make them more user friendly for all users, but specifically those that may fact accessibility challenges. There is no need for a third party plugin to achieve this – it’s baked in by default!
  4. Learning Tools / Immersive Reader: Hugely popular in education already, this started as an extra plugin for OneNote Desktop, before being built in directly and also supported in the Web/Online versions in a browser as well. This tool will read text back to the user, highlight adjectives/nouns/verbs and provide coloured overlays to assist dyslexic users.
  5. Office Accessibility Center: The one stop shop for Microsoft accessibility content and ideas.
  6. Surface Hub: When it comes to providing the best hardware / software combination for collaboration for deaf customers, I think the Hub the best choice given the fully integrated camera experience will provide the ability to use sign language to communicate easily and effectively with remote users. Two videos below show the ease of meetings in with Surface Hub:

It is not just Surface Hub that is helping deaf students, the Surface Pro was highlighted in a video showing how deaf students playing American Football used it to communicate and develop game strategy:

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Accessibility examples from Windows 10

As you can see, there is a huge amount of work being done to support all users to make Windows and Office365 a totally accessible product. One small thing I really like is the ability to replace audio cues with visual or text notifications in Windows, an invaluable addition to the user experience for a deaf person.

If you think I’ve missed something or have other suggestions feel free to drop a note in the comments below.

 

PowerBI Premium Is Here

powerbiLast month I blogged about the announcement of PowerBI Premium and the changes that were coming. This has sparked a renewed interest from schools and tertiary institutes as they understand the implications of these changes and how they can leverage them to their advantage.

Overnight, the PowerBI team published a couple of interesting blogs that are worth checking out:

If you’re not particularly familiar with PowerBI Premium then read the whitepaper here, but in essence it:

….enables the distribution of reports broadly across an enterprise and externally, without requiring recipients to be individually licensed. And since Power BI Premium consists of capacity in the Power BI service exclusively dedicated to an organization, the offering provides the flexibility to customize performance based on the needs of a team, department, or the organization itself.

Embedded PowerBI Reports:

An area that has probably generated the most questions to me is the ability to embed PowerBI reports into a web or mobile app. I’ve linked to guides showing how this can be done in earlier blog posts, but it is only with PowerBI Premium that fixed costs around this service have become available. It’s worth reading the PDF called “Embedded Analytics Capacity Planning PowerBI” in it’s entirety but a few things stand out to me:

  1. You need to continue to license users with PowerBI Pro if they are administrating, developing or publishing content within PowerBI for consumption by others. This is no change from the earlier announcement last month but is worth keeping in mind.
  2. Even when testing in development you need to have a PowerBI Premium SKU “Power BI Premium enables full testing of the solution with embed tokens that allow multi-user access to the embedded Power BI reports and dashboards.”
  3. PowerBI Premium has new embedded SKU for running it as a PaaS with varying levels of capacity, based on the anticipated number of pages rendered per hour
    1. A page render is counted any time Power BI visuals are loaded on a page. A page refresh counts as a page render, as does any other page interactivity, like slice and dice, filtering, etc. 

The report gives an example for how to calculate what sort of capacity a developer might need to think about when it comes to using Embedded PowerBI:

[A developer] knows that the SaaS App with embedded Power BI handles 100 users in the peak hour. It is assumed that these users will trigger a total of 250 page renders for that hour because each user will load a report and interact with it 2.5 times during the peak hour …. [the developer] should choose Power BI Premium EM1.

PowerBI Embedded Costs

Initial costing (in USD$) for commercial users. The first three rows are embedded SKU (PaaS only). Educational pricing will be lower than the above.

I’ve had a number of conversations with both educational software developers and larger schools that are interested in delivering embedded PowerBI reports in both web apps (parent portals or intranets in a typical school environment) and mobile apps, so the new EM1 SKU above does start to deliver a more affordable option.

Dealing With Data Sovereignty: Why Government Agencies Must Use Cloud Services

One of the common objections I hear from schools around New Zealand when the topic of moving to the cloud comes up is “what about the security of my data? Who owns it if it is hosted overseas?”

Data sovereignty is a big deal and schools should definitely be thinking about these types of questions, however the New Zealand Government has significantly simplified this conversation by posting online about why Government Agencies must use cloud services:

Cabinet’s Cloud First policy requires agencies to adopt cloud services in preference to traditional IT systems because they are more cost effective, agile, are generally more secure, and provide greater choice.

Cabinet requires agencies to adopt cloud services

Cabinet requires agencies to:

  • adopt cloud services in preference to traditional IT systems
  • make adoption decisions on a case-by-case basis following a risk assessment 
  • only store data classified as RESTRICTED or below in a cloud service, whether it is hosted onshore or offshore

The last bullet point is especially important – it’s unlikely any schools store data at a security classification level higher than “RESTRICTED” – leaving only Confidential, Secret and Top Secret data not being permitted in the public cloud.

The Government requirement outlines the reasons why they mandate a cloud-first approach for agencies, with the value offering being:

The key benefits of cloud services for the Government are:

  • more cost-effective IT services
  • increased agility from quicker deployment times
  • greater choice
  • improved security.

From an Office Productivity perspective, the article also shows significant usage of Microsoft Office365 usage amongst Government agencies:

There is strong demand for adopting office productivity services, with over half of agency CIOs stating in our October 2016 survey their agencies intend to use these services within the next 12 months. Almost all of these agencies intend to use Microsoft’s Office 365, Skype, Azure Active Directory and Azure Services

From a school leadership perspective, this mandate from the New Zealand government simplifies the decision making process somewhat, by effectively saying the public cloud offerings outside of New Zealand are acceptable for all data classified as RESTRICTED or below. The closest Azure data centers to New Zealand are located in Sydney and Melbourne respectively:

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Harvest: Making Marking Easy in OneNote Class Notebooks

Harvest2OneNote Class Notebooks remain one of the most popular features in the Microsoft Office365 Education offerings and teachers love the simplicity of seeing all of their students’ work in one place. This is especially important when it comes to quickly and efficiently marking the work of students and providing feedback.

The One Education team, creators of the Infinity One laptop for students, recognised the power and popularity of OneNote and created a brand new product called Harvest to supercharge marking and sharing of student work for teachers. This is hosted entirely in the Azure cloud and harnesses all the power of Office365 API and OneNote Class Notebooks, demonstrating innovative thinking by helping teachers reduce the time consuming work of marking and collating student work.

I’ve created a quick six minute introduction to the product where I walk through some of the key features and you can see this below:

As you will have seen in the video, teachers can install the plugin into OneNote Online (note that for now OneNote desktop does not support the addition of third party extensions, so Harvest only works in the browser version of OneNote Online) and can get started marking student work immediately:

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Currently, Harvest supports a database of both New Zealand and Australian curriculum standards/strands meaning teachers can easily search for the standard they wish to mark student work against. This, in itself, streamlines the marking process for teachers as they do not need to manually enter the curriculum details that the student is studying.

Here is a simple example of marking a student’s Year 13 Calculus work:

On the left you can see the student’s Maths–>Calculus section in the OneNote Class Notebook has been selected and on the right the teacher has clicked “Browse” to identify the curriculum strand they’re assessing against. Mathematics and Statistics is selected.

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The teacher selects the curriculum level / year level to narrow down the selection of curriculum strands to choose from:

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The teacher then selects the most appropriate curriculum strand(s) they are assessing against:

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The teacher can now see the curriculum strand, give it a grade of “Below / At / Above Level” and can even add a comment of up to 255 characters (visible only to the teacher currently)

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Harvest Dashboard

Harvest Dashboard Link

What really sets Harvest apart is the use of existing API within OneNote to collate all of this work (essentially, these grades are Tags within OneNote) and then display them in a “single pane of glass” interface. This assists the teacher to get an overview of either a single student or an entire class based off the marking they have completed. To view this dashboard the teacher simply clicks the “Harvest” menu item and then “Dashboard” and it loads for them in a new tab in their browser:

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Some things to note in the above screenshot:

  • Teachers can select from multiple different OneNote Class Notebooks on the left hand menu
  • Teachers can also select from multiple curriculum areas within the same Class NoteBook which obviously makes a lot of sense for primary school teachers, or cross-curricular class environments.
  • Students are all listed in a grid (the columns), with a colour coded system showing whether they are Below / At / Above The Level based on each curriculum strand marked (the rows in the grid). Where a student does not have work marked against a particular curriculum strand it is grey indicating “No Rating”
  • Harvest will also generate a thumbnail of the student work when hovering over the grade in the grid – note at this stage thumbnails of digital inking is not available.

It’s not hard to imagine how beneficial the above view would be for a teacher when it comes to writing school reports or preparing for parent/teacher interviews – they would literally have ALL graded work collated into one place and able to show the parent at the click of a button. This is harnessing all the power of OneNote Class Notebooks, the associated API’s and the Azure cloud to streamline marking and reporting for teachers.

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Viewing larger thumbnails of student work in Harvest Feed, where the various grades are easily recognizable through consistent colour coding.

To top it off, teachers can choose to share selected student work directly to parents with a shortened URL (something Microsoft recently added to Class Notebooks):

Harvest Share

A teacher must first select “Student Feedback” along the top to make it publicly visible, and then simply copy the link to share with a parent.

I am really excited by the prospects of Harvest because it seems like a product that understands the challenges teachers have managing large amounts of assessment and aims to simplify the reporting process. With many schools moving to increasingly digital and paperless environments, leveraging the existing power within OneNote to support assessment and reporting is a smart move and something I’d imagine many schools will be very interested in.

For schools that are wanting to get started with Harvest straight away, check out these comprehensive set up instructions.

Create An Office365 CloudBook With Older Hardware For Improved Performance & Security

Microsoft recently partnered with Neverware, a company that have created a CloudReady OS to support Office365 Online apps. This can best be likened to a ChromeBook style interface where users sign in with an existing G Suite account and then use their Office365 credentials to access a “web only” interface.

Currently, it appears that you can not sign in directly with your O365 username/password (this would rely on Azure AD), but instead sign into the device locally using an existing Google Account. This is a downside for schools that are exclusively Office 365 for their identity management, as to make it seamless you’d need to also have users set up with a Google Account and then using ADFS for single sign on (SSO).

Nevertheless, you can learn more in this introduction video:

This is an intriguing concept, particularly because it allows schools to recycle older hardware that perhaps would not support desktop applications too smoothly any more, but could run a browser-based operating system. Neverware have created an extensive Supported Devices Catalog where you can easily search to see if your hardware will definitely run the CloudReady OS.

Schools can take advantage of the affordable pricing model outlined below:

CloudReady OS

Here is another video showing a webinar of the product from Neverware:

I deployed this to a Lenovo N23 device and it worked fine, aside from the above issue of having to sign into the device with my Google account first (and not directly using my O365 credentials). The knock on affect of this, of course, is that when you launch the “apps”, you need to sign into them in your browser as well.

For schools that have older hardware or who want to minimize the management of devices moving forward this could be an interesting option to explore.

Enrolling a Windows 10 Home Edition BYOD Device Into Intune For Education

I’ve run a lot of demonstrations of Intune for Education  over the last few months and today I tried to see if I could enroll a Windows 10 Home Edition BYOD device into Intune for Education.

This is an important consideration because many of the devices that students bring to school typically only have Windows 10 Home Edition on them and this can not be joined to a local Domain or Azure Active Directory. It’s worth being aware, however, that schools can set up the Kivuto portal for free, and offer their students the ability to boost their BYOD Windows 10 version to Pro Edu for free and for the life of the device. You can see how to do this here.

Here are the steps to join a BYOD Win10 Home Edition device to Intune for Education:

1) Under settings, go to “Access work or school” and click the “Connect” button in the main view on the right:

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2) Alternatively, if you hit the Windows button and search for “About this PC” you’ll see overall device info like below. Note the Edition is Windows 10 Home and there is also a link directly to “Connect to work or school”

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3) When prompted, enter your full school email address as below:

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4) When prompted, enter your school password:

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5) If entered correctly, you’ll receive confirmation it’s been done:

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6) You will then be advised that the device is being registered and applications and policy is being applied in line with the settings in Intune for Education:

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7) Once completed, you will now be returned to the “Connect to work or school” screen and can now see your account listed as below:

 

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8) As a reference, below is the product licenses assigned to the demo user in my Office 365 Tenant:

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9) If you hit the Windows key you should see the various apps streaming to the device as per the policy in Intune for Education:

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For schools, knowing that they can can enroll Windows 10 Home Edition BYOD directly into Intune For Education is an important step as they don’t need to worry about upgrading the devices to Win10 Pro / Edu.

 

Azure AD B2B – Simplifying Collaboration With Users Outside Your Organisation

AAD B2BCollaboration is a buzz word that is hard to avoid in virtually every sphere of life these days, whether that is education, work environments and right through to team building exercises. This week I learnt about Azure AD B2B a new feature in Azure Active Directory that went into general availability in April 2017.

This feature solves a very real problem many organisations currently have: how to securely and easily invite users from outside your organisation and enable them to access key applications and resources that are only available to internal Office365 tenant users. Existing Microsoft customers have made it very clear that the ability to work with external partners is critical:

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I am particularly excited about this feature to enable better collaboration between schools in the Communities of Learning here in New Zealand. For those unfamiliar with what a CoL is, here is the summary:

A Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako is a group of education and training providers working together to help learners achieve their full potential. These include early childhood education services me ngā kōhanga reo (early learning services), schools, kura and post-secondary.
Each Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako sets shared goals, or achievement challenges based on the particular needs of its learners.

I’ve added the bold highlights above to focus on the fact that for these groups of schools (often 10-15 in number, clustered together geographically), and having the ability to access and share key resources is critical. This is where Azure AD B2B excels:

The key benefits of Azure AD B2B collaboration to your organization

Work with any user from any partner

  • Partners use their own credentials
  • No requirement for partners to use Azure AD
  • No external directories or complex set-up required

Simple and secure collaboration

  • Provide access to any corporate app or data, while applying sophisticated, Azure AD-powered authorization policies
  • Seamless user experiences
  • Enterprise-grade security for apps and data

No management overhead

  • No external account or password management
  • No sync or manual account lifecycle management
  • No external administrative overhead

Put in simple terms, schools can all sign into a “host” Office365 Tenant’s Azure Active Directory using their own school’s email address and password, or even a personal email address such as yahoo.com or gmail.comThis immediately removes any barriers to access of documents but retains full security and the application of policy to these external users is very easy too e.g. requiring Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) to ensure security around accessing content.

This is all explained in the following video which I do encourage you to watch through to the end to see just how easy it is to set up.

If you’re interested in getting started immediately, click this link for more information.

Other cool features (demonstrated in the YouTube video above) include:

  • Setting up a “request access” page so that external users can proactively request access and then have a nominated tenant administrator approve all requests in one go, reducing the need to manually set up external users one by one
  • Future plans exist to federate with popular third party identity providers as well such as Google/Yahoo to provide true Single Sign On (SSO) experiences.
  • Easily use AAD Groups to manage access and policy e.g. create an “External Schools OneNote” Group that teachers from other schools would be added to so that they can access and share OneNote resources (or Sharepoint, or Teams etc).
  • There is advanced feature such as MFA that can be applied, restrictions based on OS e.g. allow only iOS or Windows 10 but block Android, as well as detailed reporting around sign in and accessing of content from external users.
  • Access source code on GitHub published by Microsoft to support getting AAD B2B up and running quickly.

Setting up Azure AD B2B has a wide range of potential uses in school settings and I’m interested to see how this plays out over the next few months as it gets picked up and used by schools.