Learning Tools – Using technology to support learning and facilitate collaboration in education

Yesterday Microsoft Ireland hosted a half-day workshop for second level students using technology for additional support within education. This workshop came about thanks to Tara O’Shea, Community Affairs Manager at Microsoft and Stephen Howell, Academic Program Manager. Tara has been a huge supporter of Enable Ireland Assistive Technology Service over the last decade and been the driving force behind many of the successful projects we have collaborated on. Stephen would be a very familiar face to anyone involved in that space where technology and education meet, not just in Ireland but internationally.

The goal of the workshop was to introduce some of the collaboration tools available to students using Office365, additional supports available to students with maths or language difficulties and to provide alternative ways to produce and present content. Obviously as Microsoft was hosting there was an emphases on their tools nevertheless Stephen was quite open about how similar features are available on other platforms. We (Enable Ireland AT) pride ourselves on providing independent recommendations; the best solution for the user is the solution they use best. The practice of schools forcing students down any particular route: Microsoft, Google or Apple, is restrictive and cause difficulties if there are specific access or support needs. Microsoft and Google though offer more browser-based tools that mean users are free to use any device. I should also acknowledged that Microsoft have really upped their game in the areas of Education and Accessibility over the last few years.   

Collaboration

Fostering collaboration is a cornerstone of modern education and promotes a vital real world skill (teamwork) that will serve students throughout their lives. The screenshot below from Facebook (Stephanie McKellop) and illustrates a way that tools we may have considered more for remote collaboration, can be used within a classroom or lecture hall.

Facebook screenshot from user
Stephanie McKellop.
I learned today that a group of students used a Google doc to take lecture notes -- they all took notes simultaneously in a collective file.
They would mark places they were confused or couldn't follow the lecturer. other students would see and explain.
at the end of the semester they have a massive document of note, questions and explanations from peers

Although this example uses Google Docs, Microsoft OneNote could also be used in this way. In fact there would be a number of advantages to using OneNote such as the ability to incorporate Ink annotations and drawings, audio & video and adding whiteboard or print text using Office Lens.

When it comes to collaboration, Microsoft Teams is at the centre. Teams is a unified communications platform, basically it’s like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger but with tonnes of additional features. Through Teams you can not only instant message, video/audio call or share desktops but you can also work on shared documents, whiteboards or mind maps. There are also plugins for many third party apps and services, so if you are already collaboration app or service there is probably an integration available. Stephen demonstrated how a tool like Teams could be used in a classroom session by setting up a class team and getting everyone to work on a short Sway presentation (we mentioned Sway in a previous post a couple of years ago, don’t understand why everyone isn’t using it by now). Once everyone had completed their presentation they posted a link to the class message stream and Stephen showed it on the large screen. Okay, this exercise could have been done without Teams but using the service made it so much easier and more importantly everything was recorded for students to revisit in their own time.

Support

We have looked at Microsoft Learning Tools numerous times on this blog over the last few years (read this post is you want to know more about Learning Tools). Thankfully, since its introduction as a plugin for OneNote in 2016 it has gone from strength to strength. Features like Immersive Reader are now standalone apps and have also found their way into many other Office365 apps like Word and Outlook. Some other apps Stephen introduced are listed below with a brief description. They are all free so we encourage you to download and try them yourselves.

Microsoft Math: If you are familiar with the language-learning app Duolingo, this app takes a similar approach to teaching Mathematics. Short challenges with rewards and feedback. Gamifying Maths

Snip & Sketch: Lets you quickly and easily capture content from the web (pictures, text etc), draw and annotate it and share with other apps.

Microsoft WhiteBoard: Provides a blank canvas where you can collaborate with others and share with the class

Microsoft Translator: Useful for translations or transcriptions. Stephen also showed how it can be a great way to practice pronunciation when learning to speak a foreign language.    

XAC (XBOX Adaptive Controller) User Review

I have always been a bit of a gamer. From Tetris on the original Gameboy to Sonic and the SEGA Mega Drive, I was always keen to pass the time away rapidly instructing a cartoon character to bounce from one side of the screen to another. Since I acquired my disability in 1999 though I felt
that large parts of this world were now no longer accessible to me. I felt with limited use of my arms and no use of my fingers consoles were out of the question. That changed recently when the Xbox brought out their new accessible controller.

I had tried to use several different games on the PlayStation and the Xbox, my nephew had a PlayStation and I had been able to use the left stick and some of the buttons on the ordinary controller but despite me telling him not to use the trigger buttons which were inaccessible to me I still got hammered several times by him on FIFA.

This new accessible controller seemed as though it would provide me with the opportunity to have the full experience of console gaming again, but who is going to buy an Xbox One and accessible controller just to see if they can use it or not? Thankfully Enable Ireland came to my rescue and
they allowed me to borrow their console and controller for the period of a month.


XBox Adaptive Controller (XAC)

The controller is simple to use and simple to set up. I needed some help to physically plug some aids in and out of the controller but apart from that it was a breeze.

The controller is setup for people of all abilities. The variety of configurations is as wide as the number of disabilities of the people who it is geared to provide for.

The xbox adaptive controller with some compatible accessories, switches, one handed joystick


I used the controller mainly for games like FIFA, Ryse, Forza 5, and some slightly more intricately controlled games like Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield.

Some games I used just the accessible controller with the coloured plug in switches that Enable Ireland provided alongside the console.

For other more complicated games, I used the Co-Pilot feature. The Co-Pilot feature allows you to use the ordinary controller as best you can while using the accessible controller switches for any bits or buttons on the ordinary controller that you can’t access.

Forza 5

Forza 5 cover
Forza switch setup. 4 switches. break, go , left , right

My setup for Forza, the car racing game, was the simplest of all. I took 4 of the aid switches and plugged them into the accessible controller, one was plugged into RT for the accelerator, one was plugged into LT for the brake, and the remaining two were plugged into the left and right ports on
the d-pad. I placed the RT switch under my elbow to continuously accelerate, which then meant my hands only had to focus on the three remaining buttons for steering and braking. That was a huge success, and meant I did not need any assistance throughout any of the gameplay on that particular game. Though that does not mean I was a great driver!

using elbow switch for accellator left only 3 switches to operate and drive successfully

FIFA 19

FIFA 19 Cover
switch setup for FIFA 19. One switch on arm rest, two on right leg, one on left leg and the xbox controller

For FIFA I used the Co-Pilot feature. I used the ordinary controller as I had done previously with my nephew, steering my player with the left stick while passing, tackling, shooting, etc with the usual A, B, X, and Y buttons.

I used the Xbox Accessible Controller then for the sprint and switch player options. I simply plugged in the switches into the RT and LT ports on the accessible controller and played normally on the ordinary controller while occasionally tapping the switches to change player or holding them down
with my elbow to sprint.

A very successful and intelligent solution which resulted in a 5-1 victory for me over my nephew! His face was a picture 🙂

Ryse, GTA & Battlefield

Ryse cover
Grand Theft Auto cover
Battlefield cover

Each of these I played with a similar set up to FIFA (pictured above). I used the Co-Pilot feature, the ordinary controller in conjunction with the accessible controller with four switches plugged into the RT, LT, RB, and LB ports.

Mainstream controller supplemented by a switch on the armrest, two on right knee and one on left

These games were a bit more intricate in their controls in comparison to the others and a little more difficult to use as a result. The accessible controller meant though that it was possible for me to at least give it a go. This controls setup was good and meant that I actually completed the story mode of Ryse, on easy.

I could play the vast majority of GTA and Battlefield without any difficulty, but there were certain issues. To use the character’s “special abilities” in GTA you had to press down on both the left and right sticks. I think you could set that up but that would require two more switches which I didn’t have.

Also, on occasion, while I had all the right buttons the scenario in the game was so complex that it involved pressing a number of buttons and steering at least one, if not both, sticks at the same time. It was almost equivalent to playing some musical instrument. On one mission I did have to fall back on some assistance from my nephew.

Conclusion

While it is still not quite the same as gaming prior to my disability the Xbox Accessible Controller has reopened the prospect of gaming properly on a regular basis and owning a console of my own again. This was a world that I thought had long left me behind but thanks to Microsoft and Xbox I’m
right back in the game!

Eye Control – Inbuilt EyeGaze Access for Windows 10

Just yesterday Microsoft announced what is possibly their biggest step forward in functionality within their Ease of Access accessibility settings since Windows 7. Eye Control is an inbuilt feature to facilitate access to the Windows 10 OS using the low cost eyegaze peripheral the Tracker 4 C from Tobii. More about what you can actually do with Eye Control below but first a little background to how this has come about.

Steve Gleeson and his son

Former American Football professional and MND (ALS) sufferer Steve Gleason (above) challenged Microsoft in 2014 to help people affected by this degenerative condition through the advancement eye tracking technology. This initial contact lead to the development of a prototype eye gaze controlled wheelchair, receiving lots of publicity and generating increased awareness in the process. However it was never likely to be progressed to a product that would be available to other people in a similar situation. What this project did achieve was to pique the interest of some of the considerable talent within Microsoft into the input technology itself and its application, particularly for people with MND.

A combination of factors felt on both sides of the Atlantic have proved problematic when it comes to providing timely AT support to people diagnosed with MND. Eyegaze input is the only solution that will allow successful computer access as the condition progresses, eye movement being the only ability left in the final stages of the illness. However, historically the cost of the technology meant that either insurance, government funding or private fundraising was the only means by which people could pay for eyegaze equipment. Usually this resulted in a significant delay which, due to the often aggressive nature of MND meant valuable time was lost and often the solution arrived too late. This situation was recognized by Julius Sweetland who led the development of Optikey, an Open Source computer access/AAC solution designed to work with low cost eye trackers back in 2015. Interestingly some of the innovative features of Optikey seem to have made it to Eye Control on Windows 10 (Multi-Key selection called Shape Writing on Eye Control – see gif below).

demo of shap writing on Eye Control - works like swiping on a touch keyboard. dwell on the first letter of a word, glance at subsequent letters and dwell on last letter. word is entered

Since the initial Steve Gleason Wheelchair hack there has been a steady stream of high quality research papers coming from people at Microsoft on the subject of eyegaze input and MND solutions. This should have been a hint that something like Eye Control was on the horizon. EyeGaze input has promised to break into the mainstream several times over the last decade however with Eye Control and support for devices being included in the core Windows OS it has never been this close.

For more background on the path to Eye Control see this Microsoft blog post from Microsoft:  From Hack to Product, Microsoft Empowers People with Eye Control for Windows 10

Want to find out how to get early access to Eye Control or get some more information on the functionality read this post from Tobii (be warned there are still bugs):  How to get started with Eye Control on Windows.

Accessibility Checker for Word Tutorial

The Accessibility Checker feature has been part of Microsoft Office for the last few iterations of the software package. It provides a fast and easy way to check whether the content you are producing is accessible to users of assistive technology. By making accessibility accessible Microsoft have left no room for excuses like “I didn’t know how…” or “I didn’t have time..”. You wouldn’t send a document to all your colleagues full of misspellings because you were in a hurry would you? The one criticism that could have been leveled at Microsoft was perhaps they didn’t provide enough support to new users of the tool. As I said above it’s easy to use but sometimes users need a little extra support, especially when you are introducing them to something that may be perceived as additional work. Thankfully Microsoft have filled that gap with a 6 part tutorial video which clearly explains why and how to get started using Accessibility Checker. Part 1 is a short introduction (embedded below) followed by a video on each important accessibility practice; Alternative Text, Heading Styles, Hyperlinks, File naming and Tables. Each video is accompanied by a short exercise to allow you put your new skill into practice immediately. The whole tutorial can be completed in under 20 minutes. This tutorial should be a requirement for anybody producing documents for circulation to the public. Have a look at the introduction video below.