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.

 

Planning To Deploy MS Teams? Check This Resource First

With many businesses already deploying Microsoft Teams, and many educational institutes looking to follow along once Teams for Education in Office365 is officially launched, the following website is a great starting point to successfully start planning:

Success With Microsoft Teams

The website aims to provide practical guidance on best practice tips for deploying Teams and includes:

  • A link to download planning resources
  • Video tutorials including an overview/introduction, guide for deploying/operating teams, tips for ensuring success with Teams in your organisation and a bandwidth calculator to identify what impact Teams may have on your network
  • A link to download the Teams application for all the supported platforms including Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android and Windows Phone (and of course web browser platforms).

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Screenshot of the bandwidth calculator provided on the Success With Teams website

It is good to see Microsoft putting together companion websites for a new tool like Teams to ensure that organisations can introduce it smoothly. Here’s the other info from the website:

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Screenshot of the help topics available

Using “Meet Now” In Microsoft Teams

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I just learnt about this feature in Microsoft Teams – the ability to “Meet Now” and have a spontaneous video conference with the added ability to do screen sharing within it.

Given that Microsoft Teams is going to be replacing Microsoft Classroom (previously in public preview for the last six months) this looks like a very handy feature for students to collaborate remotely with.

Docs.com – Soon To Be Retired

On Friday 9th of June Microsoft announced that it would be retiring the Docs.com platform, effective as of Dec 15th 2017, at which point all content would be deleted:

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The homepage of Docs.com with the banner advising it will soon be retired in mid December 2017

An in-depth help article is available to assist you with managing the impact of this announcement, including advice for how to migrate your content to other platforms such as OneDrive For Business. Given many school users already have Office365 accounts the following advice is helpful:

For Office 365 Users with OneDrive for Business

We can automatically back up all compatible content to your OneDrive for Business account if your Administrator enables the auto-migration service for your organization (this option is available as of June 19, 2017). If you would like your school’s or company’s Administrator to initiate this process for you, please contact them and include a link to this article.

You can also choose to log in to Docs.com and follow the auto-migration prompts yourself. When the process is complete, you will find all compatible content you had previously published to Docs.com backed up to your OneDrive for Business folders. The original content on Docs.com will thereafter only be available to view, download, and delete.

The help article will be updated after June 19th 2017 with further information specifically for O365 Administrators so they can support their users.

Microsoft is encouraging regular users of Docs.com to explore SlideShare.net as the recommended replacement platform for sharing content publicly.

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SlideShare was acquired by Microsoft as part of LinkedIn.com  and allows users to sign in with either their LinkedIn or FaceBook profiles to start sharing and commenting on the platform. From the announcement article:

Following Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn, SlideShare has joined the Microsoft family, and represents the ideal platform for publishing your Word, PowerPoint, and PDF content with its audience of 70 million professionals, and vast content library

There is six months remaining before the retirement of Docs.com and the subsequent deletion of all content on it. If you’re a regular user of the service it is time to get thinking about backing up your content to OneDrive for Business and migrating your public content to SlideShare.

School Is Finishing – How Do I Keep A Copy Of My OneNote Class NoteBooks?

One of the most common questions that I get asked my students and teachers is “How do I keep my Class OneNote Notebooks when the school year finishes?” It’s a legitimate query given this was pretty easy in a non-digital age: you simply walked off with your ring binder folder or exercise book.

In a new blog from the OneNote Team, they have explained a new way to effectively save a copy to your personal Microsoft account so you always have a copy of your class notes. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sign in to OneNote Online, our web version of OneNote.
  2. From the Notebook list, click Class Notebooks to display all your Class Notebooks.
  3. Right-click to select a Class Notebook and then select Save a copy.

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Right-click a Class Notebook and select Save a copy.

  1. Click Next. You are prompted to sign in to a consumer Microsoft account. If you don’t have one, go here http://www.live.com to sign up.

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That’s it! Your OneNote Class Notebook is copied to the consumer OneDrive and is available for you to use elsewhere.

On the blog, future developments are hinted at as well:

This is just the initial rollout of the Save a copy feature. In the near future, we will add the ability to choose any notebook type, not just Class Notebooks. We will also roll out the Save a copy feature to your own OneDrive for Business, which will allow students to save a copy of their Class Notebook from a teacher’s OneDrive for Business to their own OneDrive for Business.

If you’re a school leader please make sure you share this feature with your students so they can ensure they’ve kept a copy of their work.

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.