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.

blog 1.png

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:

blog 3

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:

blog 4.PNG

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:

blog 2

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.

Using Power Query in Excel 2016 To Ready CSV Files for Student Data Sync (SDS)

Student Data Sync, or SDS, is a core tool from Microsoft that helps schools prepare their student, teacher and class data ready for use in great platforms such as Teams for Education (formerly Microsoft Classroom) and Intune for Education.

In countries outside of the USA (where API exist), schools need to prepare six CSV files containing the relevant information from their Student Management System (SMS). Fortunately, Microsoft has provided some sample scripts and files (along with a toolkit to verify your data integrity) to help.

SDS

Student Data Sync is the starting point to creating a correlation or framework that connects your students, teachers and classes together in a meaningful way, allowing you to leverage cloud based tools more efficiently.

However, often the challenge lies in the format of the exported data from the school’s SMS. This is where Grant Saul, the Director of ICT from Westlake Boys High School has powerquerystepped in and provided a fantastic tutorial on how to use Power Query, a tool that comes in Excel 2016, to tidy up the format of your source data and prepare it for import with Student Data Sync.

In Grant’s example, he takes a standard export from Kamar (a very popular New Zealand SMS) and shows how it can be transformed using Power Query into the correct format for importing into SDS. You can read his original post here (and I encourage you to do so) whilst watching his screencast below:

The great feature of Power Query is it records each step in the data transformation, allowing you to easily replicate / replay the changes when the source data is refreshed, creating a super efficient method of managing your data.

For schools that want to use Microsoft SDS this is a very helpful guide.

PowerBI – Major Licensing Changes

powerbi-getting-startedPowerBI is a fantastic visualisation and reporting tool that I’ve written about extensively on this blog already, as well as having created numerous screencasts and blogs in an educational context from my time at St Andrew’s College.

Last week, Microsoft announced some major changes to the licensing of PowerBI which will come into effect on June 1st 2017 with some potential ramifications for schools that are currently exploring the functionality in the free version. If you’re unfamiliar with the product in general, then PowerBI.com is the best place to start for an overview, and the key changes from the announcement on 3rd of May can be found on this blog post from PowerBI.com.

My take on these changes is as follows:

  • PowerBI Free = still available, you can download the free PowerBI Desktop app here, and you can still publish reports/dashboards to PowerBI.com in the cloud but you can no longer share these with other users in the free version (this will require a Pro license – see below). Perhaps a better way of looking at this would be “PowerBI Personal” – i.e. for your own data explorations and visualizations in situations where you have no intention to share or collaborate with others. The update is there is some increased functionality around frequency of data refresh rates using the Data Gateway, along with increased volumes of data.
  • PowerBI Pro = Very similar to what was previously being delivered with this paid for license (academic pricing is generally available in most countries) but it appears this is increasingly becoming the “default” license if you’re wanting to share or collaborate on reports, or have your data automatically refreshing using the Personal Data Gateways from a wider range of data sources. The best link to understand what constitutes content requiring a PowerBI Pro license can be found here and I would encourage you to check this out. From my quick scan, the features which have moved out of the “free” and into the “Pro” license appear to be:
    • Data from a dataset that connects to on-premises data using the Power BI Gateway – Personal or the On-premises Data Gateway, and for which a scheduled refresh is set.
    • A dashboard or report that’s installed from an app or an organizational content pack.
    • Export to CSV/Excel
    • Peer to Peer dashboard sharing
  • PowerBI Premium = The newest feature, all details can be seen here, this is intended for large scale deployment of dashboards and reports across your organisation, including the ability to share content with users who are not necessarily licensed in the traditional way as an individual user. It has a higher financial entry point, with a fixed monthly cost and I don’t see much application at a K-12 level (outside of a school investing in sharing PowerBI reporting with parents too). However this could be a game changer at HighEd / Tertiary institutions that are wanting to enable their entire staff and students to make better data-driven decision making.
    • Importantly, it appears that the embedding of dashboards into web apps and web pages is now a feature reserved for Premium usage, so this will have consequences for third party developers / ISVs wanting to use PowerBI as the reporting engine in their software.
PowerBI Dashboard.png

Example K-12 Education dashboard made in PowerBI

It is going to take a bit for for me to fully understand how these changes will ultimately affect schools. For those that have invested in PowerBI Pro licenses for staff/students, not much will change I suspect and it will be business as usual. For those schools that have been experimenting with PowerBI and the free licenses I think the major implications are likely to be:

  • No ability to share content that has been refreshed automatically using the Personal Data Gateway, or has come from any sort of database / web source.
  • Restricted to sharing content that has been manually populated into PowerBI.com from limited data sources such as either PowerBI Desktop, Excel or CSV.

Given most schools want to move towards a “set and forget” approach when it comes to data configuration, it would appear that using PowerBI Pro licenses is the way forward for most schools.

For an external view of these changes have a read of this interesting summary from Matt Allington in Australia where he highlights five different user scenarios and identifies how the changes benefit them. He picks up on the value add for large organisations and the ability to deploy easily across users, splitting users between content creators (who will still need a PowerBI Pro license) and consumers (who will be covered by organisational PowerBI Premium consumption licenses).

 

Digital Inking – Improves Teaching & Learning

Inking.PNG

I have visited a number of schools recently and demonstrated many of the natural hand gestures for editing and Ink Replay available in Office365 and the response is always very positive from teachers and students alike.

I have recently found the above infographic showing independent research from Sharon Oviatt, an expert in human centered and multi-modal interfaces and use of pen inputs on computers. I find that the numbers in the infographic resonate with teachers that I’ve been working with who are using Digital Inking to prepare student work, provide feedback and mark assessment.

When I was still at St Andrew’s College I recorded an interview with the Head of English and she explained how she marks English assignments using her Surface Pro 3 and digital ink:

DigitalPenUsageThere are many and varied compelling reasons to try Digital Inking and with a wider range of devices now supporting this, from entry level OEM offerings through to the newly announced Surface Laptop,  there is bound to be a device that meets your budget and requirements.

If you are interested in further research and information from Sharon Oviatt on the “power of the pen” then I encourage you to check out this blog from the Microsoft In Education team where it goes into more depth about the impact of computer interfaces on learning.

You can read the full blog post here.

Student Note Taking: Typing or Hand Writing?

I’ve written a few posts lately about the power of Digital Inking and ways to “Think in Ink”  and I am more convinced than ever that equipping students with devices that allow them to doodle, draw, annotate and just straight hand write notes and ideas is a necessity.

I know there is also the following quote from Microsoft promotional material:

Studies indicate that diagraming thinking before solving a science problem leads to a 25%-36% higher score

A quick search on the web reveals people doubt this but a link to the research findings can be found here. Tonight I read an article on LinkedIn titled:

What is a more effective way of taking notes – laptop or notepad?

As usual, I encourage you to read the entire thing yourself, it’s only a 3 minute read after all, and it talks about research completed in 2014 showing that students that hand wrote notes had far better conceptual comprehension of the content they had been taught compared to students who typed their notes up. Even when students who had typed their notes were given ten minutes to revise them before a test a week later, they still scored worse than those that had handwritten their notes in some way.

I’ve seen similar tests completed elsewhere so this finding is not new to me, however it certainly highlights the value of digital inking and usefulness of the basic “ruled lines” in OneNote:

OneNote.PNG

I find it interesting that when testing for factual recall, students scored the same whether they handwrote their notes or typed them, but only when testing for conceptual understanding did the differences emerge:

Typing-vs-paper.jpg

Again, do take time to read the original article and ponder how you record information in your daily life and if you’re a decision maker in a school, what devices are you recommending to your students to bring along.

Big Data & Social Profiling

Big-Data.pngI read an interesting article tonight called The Data That Turned the World Upside Down and it explores the idea that perhaps the recent 2016 US Election was influenced by political campaigns being able to profile undecided voters based on their online digital footprint, and then target them with highly personalized adverts.

It’s worth taking some time to read the entire article and learn how through a combination of Facebook users completing a free online personality quiz, combined with their Facebook activity (primarily what they “liked”), researchers were able to establish highly accurate models for predicting certain things about users.

The strength of their modeling was illustrated by how well it could predict a subject’s answers … before long, [researchers were] able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew.

Another fascinating quote from the article showed that the researchers were able to:

prove that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.

1984.jpgIt’s a timely conversation because last Friday I was chatting with colleagues from the former school I worked in and one of them mentioned that students these days have no sense of privacy or concern about the volume of data that is known about them by large companies and/or the government. One of the teachers I was speaking to compared it with George Orwell’s famous novel, Nineteen Eighty Four which if you’re unfamiliar with this the Wikipedia overview describes it as:

a dystopian novel published in 1949 by English author George Orwell. The novel is set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation.… The superstate is under the control of the privileged elite of the Inner Party, a party and government that persecutes individualism and independent thinking as “thoughtcrime”, which is enforced by the “Thought Police”. (Underlines are my emphasis)

The contrast the teacher made, however, was rather than the government obtaining all of this information through huge surveillance and intrusion into the private lives of citizens, nowadays people are freely giving up this data to multi-nationals who are on-selling this to research firms who are then finding correlations. Again, from the original article linked above, the research firms explained how they obtained the data to support their programmes:

buys personal data from a range of different sources, like land registries, automotive data, shopping data, bonus cards, club memberships, what magazines you read, what churches you attend … in the US, almost all personal data is for sale. For example, if you want to know where Jewish women live, you can simply buy this information, phone numbers included [They then] aggregates this data with the electoral rolls of the Republican party and online data and calculates a Big Five personality profile. Digital footprints suddenly become real people with fears, needs, interests, and residential addresses.

(Emphasis applied is mine)

Now much of this is not new to me – I attended a great session at the AIS NSW ICT Managers Conference in Canberra last year where a Facebook advertising expert demonstrated in real time just how easy it is to create targeted Facebook adverts to virtually any demographic. However when one thinks about this level of data science being used to shape electioneering and potentially sway the final outcomes of elections it should lead to pause for thought.

Like the teacher I was talking to pointed out – we all give up data about ourselves to some extent, the question is really do we consider the true cost of this action?