The Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB) was founded in 1886 to provide an education for the state’s blind and hearing-impaired students. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the mission truly became a reality. That’s when mathematics teacher Robin Lowell, along with her peers, began using Microsoft Lync for distance learning to ensure that visually impaired students, wherever they happened to live, had access to a quality education. The approached worked seamlessly for both students and teachers, and Lowell, along with fellow teacher Sherry Hahn, placed first in the U.S. Partners in Learning Cutting Edge Use of Technology for Learning category during the U.S. Forum held last month. Lowell will be traveling to Prague in November for the Partners in Learning Global Forum, where she’ll share her team’s approach to making learning accessible for visually impaired students with a world-wide audience. “This program has prompted people to think about how to reach kids wherever they are and whatever their situation is,” Lowell says. “It also demonstrates how enterprise software is effective in an educational setting.”
All this week here at Daily Edventures, we’ll be highlighting the important topic of accessibility, and Lowell’s story is the perfect way to start the conversation. Here, she shares her successful experience, and provides inspiration for any teacher struggling to ensure that all students, regardless of ability or physical location, get the education they deserve.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
I teach the first ever distance high school mathematics to blind and visually impaired students using Microsoft Lync. Mathematics is a difficult subject for these students because they need very rich and detailed instruction, specialized materials, and equipment that are not always available within a district. We bridge the gap by bringing our class to the student. The Washington State School for the Blind is located 170 miles from where I live; most students attend class from the school, and others join in from their home school. Using Microsoft Lync for distance education has opened up many opportunities to reach students wherever they are.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
We have been able to reach students in an unprecedented way, giving access to classes that put them on par with their sighted peers. Students can attend class even when they are unable to be at school, preventing them from falling behind in their classes and staying connected with their classmates.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
This program is easily replicated and uses off-the-shelf software and technology found in most schools and can be used for almost any subject. We have spent the last three years
refining our program and found that Microsoft Lync allows a seamless and fully interactive learning experience that students enjoy. This is how we described the project in our Partners in Learning submission:
Accessible Distance Learning of Mathematics for Blind and Visually Impaired High School Students
Mathematics is a challenging subject for blind and visually impaired (BVI) students because it requires specialized instruction to meet their unique accessibility needs.
Access to specialized instruction is extremely limited due primarily to a shortage of Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVI) qualified to teach mathematics. At the Washington State School for the Blind, we have developed a unique and effective program built on Microsoft Lync that provides specialized mathematics instruction to BVI students anywhere. Our mathematics TVI uses video conferencing to instruct her classes to any student with a Lync client and an internet connection. Specialized instruction is possible because Lync works seamlessly with assistive technologies such as Braille Displays and screen readers; which enables lecture, whiteboard, and other class materials to be delivered in accessible formats (e.g. Braille, large print, and/or audio). For 1:1 instruction, the students can easily share their work, ask for help, or submit classwork to the teacher using desktop sharing, instant messaging, and file transfer.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
My classes are based on Microsoft Lync; we use desktop sharing, instant messaging, file transfer and the recording features of Lync. Lessons are recorded and put on either SkyDrive or a SharePoint site which the students can access on demand. Braille users have a Braille display and a screen reading program, and low-vision students use screen magnification and accessibility tools for their individual needs. I can see each student’s desktop and what they are working on which allows me to virtually walk around the classroom and assist students. I write on a whiteboard and using a document camera, and the low-vision students can see what I am writing up close on the monitor on their desk. For some students this is the first time they have been able to see the whiteboard in a useable way.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Being able to reach students. Blind and visually impaired students are a very small population and they are located in many different areas and schools. Not all students have access to materials and qualified teachers of the visually impaired. We want to give all students access to classes that prepare them for college and/or a career and because they can’t all come to our school, we bring the school to them.
What is your country doing right to support education?
Supporting and encouraging 21st century learning.
What conditions must change to better support education?
Recognizing and promoting innovative teaching. Creativity is alive and well in education and this can be fostered by recognizing teachers and inspiring more teachers to be innovative and teach outside the box. I think this will help change public perception of our education system and help bring more resources and support for education.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
Encouragement. Teachers need to be encouraged to be innovative from the moment they decide to become a teacher with continued support once they enter the classroom. Resources, tools and opportunities need to be available to create a 21st learning atmosphere that naturally promotes innovation.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Get to know your students. If you know your students, you will know how to reach them. Listen to them and they will listen to you.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
Including all the technology that these “digital natives” use every day in their education is helping students bridge the traditional classroom with the high-tech world.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I would give every child access to teachers who are innovative, creative, and dedicated. A dedicated teacher will ensure that the students get the tools they need to be successful. These teachers leave a lasting impact on students that a single tool or technology can’t. The innovative teacher is the delivery system that brings tools such as technology, differentiated learning and real world experience that every child can benefit from.
Join the Partners in Learning Network and experience global collaboration!
Innovate in the classroom, help your students build the skills they need for the future—such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity—with Partners in Learning.
You’ll meet other innovative teachers for collaboration opportunities, get access to free teacher resources, and learn about great ways to improve your personal teaching practice using technology.
Embraced by the theme ‘Your Ideas Matter’ the Partners in Learning Network is a community for you, by you, and further amplifies the great work that is being done every day by teachers and schools around the world. With this idea in mind, we invite you to try out this global online resource and community designed to encourage collaboration and the spread of ideas for the betterment of education worldwide.
The new Partners in Learning Network is the next generation of the global network serving educators and school leaders in over 115 countries. To facilitate a truly global community of innovative educators, the site is now available in 36 different languages, thanks to the use of Microsoft Translator Services.
Sign in, create an account and start connecting with thousands of educators worldwide here.
About Robin Lowell
- Birthplace: Portland, Oregon, USA
- Current residence: Snoqualmie, Washington, USA
- Education: BS Fisheries Biology, University of Washington, Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired PSU 2007, City U—Math endorsement program (almost complete)
- Website I check every day: NPR
- Person who inspires me most: My dad. He is always researching and learning and excited to know more than he did the day before.
- Favorite childhood memory: Sailing with my family in the San Juan Islands, Washington, watching porpoise and whales swim by.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Prague, Czech Republic. Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? Five minutes ago. Watching my daughters make their baby brother laugh.
- Favorite book: A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
- Favorite music: R.E.M., Alexi Murdoch, Sigur Ros
Visit Microsoft’s Accessibility in the Classroom website
for more ideas on making education accessible to all. The following are just a few examples of the wide range of resources and tools available:
Curriculum Resources – Curriculum Resources for Special Education for Windows 7 and Office 2010
Workshop – Accessibility Teacher Training Workshop