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.

 

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.

OneDrive Files On Demand – Perfect for BYOD

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Credit: TechoFAQ

Over the last couple of years it has been evident that increasing numbers of BYOD laptops have transitioned to Solid State Disks (SSD) which is terrific since they are significantly faster than traditional Hard Disk Drives (HDD), have lower failure rates and also improve battery life.

However, due to their higher price point, the actual available storage volume of SSD is often markedly lower than equivalently priced HDD.  This means students are faced with the difficult decision around what content do they store locally on the their device versus using selective sync in the OneDrive cloud and/or storing on an external USB drive.

Selective Sync effectively allows you to upload content into OneDrive that you don’t access frequently, and then download it when you do need it. Critically, however, this content will not appear in your local File Explorer browser so you can’t “see” it unless you log into OneDrive via a web browser and choose to sync it locally to your device.

OneDrive Files On Demand Coming In Windows 10 Fall Creators Update

This is why the announcement last Friday at the Build 2017 conference was so exciting. A new feature will allow you to see all of your content in OneDrive in your File Explorer, irrespective of whether it is stored locally on your device, or only in OneDrive in the Microsoft Cloud. Then, if you want to access any content that is only in OneDrive it will automatically be downloaded “on demand” when you click to open the file/folder.

You can optionally choose to then “always keep on this device” if you are going to be requiring regular or off-line access to this file.

Read the full blog post about this here.

Here are some images from the original blog post to show you how this works:

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Note that the selected folder takes up 1.37TB of storage in the OneDrive cloud, but that locally in File Explorer it shows 0 bytes on the local device.

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The various status of each file and folder is shown in the “Status” column, indicating whether it is in the OneDrive Cloud only or stored locally on the device. Right mouse clicking allows you to choose to “Always keep on this device”

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If a file is not stored locally, simply double clicking on it as you normally would to open a file will immediately trigger a download to open the requested file.

My Point of View:

I see this as being a massive aid for schools, helping both teachers and students maximize the performance of their devices. Getting more SSD into teacher and student devices will drive longer battery life, lower failure rates and faster accessing of content. However, by being able to seamlessly see what is in the Cloud and what is stored locally removes any barrier or confusion around the location of content for end users.

With many BYOD devices starting with 64GB of storage, this opens up the vast OneDrive storage capacity to students and teachers in an easier, more seamless way, meaning there is even less reason to use USB hard drives for storing content.

This feature will be available in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update as well as new OneDrive features for iOS/Android devices.

Digital Inking – Improves Teaching & Learning

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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.

Supporting The Literacy of ALL Learners With Learning Tools

One of the most popular features of OneNote Class Notebooks was the “Learning Tools” which have enabled students of all abilities to process content more easily:

The Learning Tools for OneNote help everyone improve their reading and writing skills, including gifted learners, students with learning differences or a combination of any of the broad range of unique student abilities.

As an organisation, Microsoft has a huge focus on accessibility when it comes to enabling everyone to use technology and in line with this vision, some of the best features of the OneNote Learning Tools are coming to new platforms in the Office Suite.

Read the full announcement here from the official Office Blog

Announced in late February, the same features of the Learning Tools will now be built directly into Word 2016 (in the ProPlus “click to run” version), Word Online and OneNote Online. You will be able to access these under the “View” menu and it will be called “Immersive Reader.” As per the blog, the following features are available:

Learning Tools includes a modified reader view that utilizes techniques proven to help people read more effectively, such as:

  • Read Aloud—Reads text aloud with simultaneous highlighting that improves decoding, fluency and comprehension while sustaining the reader’s focus and attention.
  • Spacing—Optimizes font spacing in a narrow column view to improve reading fluency for users who suffer from visual crowding issues.
  • Syllables—Shows the breaks between syllables to enhance word recognition and decoding.
  • Parts of Speech*—Supports writing instruction and grammar comprehension by identifying verbs, nouns and adjectives.

In practice, this looks like the following:

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These tools are available in numerous languages as well.

Educators should definitely check these out for all students so they can be supported in their literacy.