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Posted: 2/19/2013
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Washington State School for the Blind Extending the Reach of Valuable Teachers with Communications and Collaboration Solution

When a valuable teacher had to relocate to another city, the Washington State School for the Blind wanted to continue to use her skills. It set up a videoconferencing solution to enable her to teach from home, but the solution provided limited interaction with the students. Then the school learned about Microsoft Lync Server 2010 and deployed the technology to create a fully interactive classroom with videoconferencing, desktop sharing, chat, and file sharing. The school is upgrading to Lync Server 2013 to improve its videoconferencing capabilities and to take advantage of improvements in mobility and remote access.

Business Needs
The teachers at the Washington State School for the Blind are valuable resources because they have specialized skills not only in the subject matter they are covering, but also in teaching visually impaired students. The teachers use specialized instruction methods and must be fluent in Braille.

In the summer of 2009, the school faced a serious challenge. Its high school math teacher, Robin Lowell, had to move away from the campus to a different city in Washington. A great math teacher with the skills to teach visually impaired students is virtually irreplaceable. After brainstorming solutions, the school and Lowell decided to use a videoconferencing solution to enable distance learning by bringing the teacher into the classroom.

The school used the videoconferencing solution during the 2009–2010 school year. Lessons continued, but the school had challenges with the system. “I could talk to the students, but there was no interaction,” says Lowell. “We also had difficulty getting materials back and forth. We had to scan them or use the postal service.” The videoconferencing solution had a separate camera to show a whiteboard, which could be used for partially impaired students, but only one screen existed in the classroom and the students had to walk up to it to see anything. It was disruptive and didn’t allow the students to learn naturally.

Given those challenges the school continued to look for a better solution and soon learned about Microsoft Lync Server 2010. Lync Server provides instant messaging (IM), videoconferencing, desktop sharing, file transfers, and whiteboarding capabilities, which the school is using to provide a fully interactive classroom for the math students.

* When we switched from the videoconferencing system to Lync Server, I saw a dramatic improvement in my ability to interact with the students. *

Robin Lowell
High School Math Teacher, Washington State School for the Blind

The front of the classroom is equipped with a large 32-inch display and a Logitech B910 HD webcam. The webcam gives Lowell a complete view of the classroom through the Microsoft Lync 2010 client so that she can see when students need her attention.

The students use standard laptops with Lync 2010, screen readers, and braille displays, which convert text into Braille and vice versa. With Lync, instead of using a mouse to control all of the functions, students use a keyboard, an important accessibility feature for blind and visually impaired people. Students can ask questions out loud or send an instant message to Lowell. “I have one student who doesn’t like to talk in class, but he asks questions all the time over Lync. His attentiveness and participation have skyrocketed,” says Lowell. “It’s great for all of the students to be able to use IM. They have the opportunity to ask a question while it’s fresh in their minds. They can let me know they don’t understand or they are having trouble keeping up in private, and I can change on the fly without anyone else knowing.”

Lowell uses the desktop sharing feature to view all of the students’ screens so that she can watch what they are doing as they complete their work. Because some of the students have limited vision, she also uses a document camera with a small whiteboard to write out examples. Lowell uses Lync to transfer files to the students and receive files back from them. She also records all of the lectures so that they can be reviewed by students who missed the class or need a refresher.

This application earned the school first place at the 2012 Microsoft Partners in Learning US Forum, which showcases innovative uses of Microsoft technology in education. Despite the accolades, the school is working to improve the solution and has been testing Microsoft Lync Server 2013 to take advantage of advances in conferencing and mobile and remote access.

Upgrading to Lync Server 2013
“Lync Server 2013 is going to be very helpful for the classroom experience,” says Lowell. “I can lock the camera view so it doesn’t change to the person who is talking. I can also open my IM sessions with students in tabs instead of separate windows. That is going to make it easier to manage communications with the students.”

With the Lync 2013 client, Lowell can also customize the view of the conferences. For example, she can hide the contact list and gallery view so that only the desktop sharing session appears and she can easily see what a student is doing.

Lowell sees potential to take advantage of the video support within Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. Although she doesn’t use PowerPoint presentations in her normal sessions because they are not accessible to blind students, she has been looking for a way to show recorded lectures over Lync when she cannot attend class. The school also sees potential for Lync Server 2013 to help it reach stakeholders outside of the classroom, such as parents or students at other schools who don’t have access to a Lync client. The Lync Web App provides full voice and video capabilities when external users join conferences. “We don’t have a phone conferencing service that we can use for calls with parents, so the Lync Web App will be very useful for that,” says Ed Lukowski, IT Support at the Washington State School for the Blind.

Great Accessibility Features
Students can fully control Lync 2013 by the keyboard, which is important because they cannot use a mouse. “With Lync 2013, our students can start desktop sharing, send an IM, download a file, and do any other function they need, all with keyboard commands,” says Lukowski.

Lync also supports the speech software that the school needs to enable students to use applications. “Microsoft does a great job of including accessibility features in all of the Microsoft Office products,” says Lukowski. “Our speech software worked with Lync 2013 immediately after we installed it. We did not have to customize anything.”

Lync Server has helped the Washington State School for the Blind implement a very effective distance-learning program for its students. The school sees a lot of potential to expand that program to share resources between schools. It also sees potential to use Lync Server in other ways at the school. Faced with the potential of losing a valuable math teacher, the school used Lync Server to set up a distance-learning program that is nearly as effective as being in the classroom. “When we switched from the videoconferencing system to Lync Server, I saw a dramatic improvement in my ability to interact with the students,” says Lowell. “The students started doing a lot better in class. They interacted more and they started asking more questions. I can easily forget that we are in separate zip codes.”

By using desktop sharing, Lowell can give instant feedback to the students as they do their work. “With Lync desktop sharing, I almost feel like I am standing in the room and looking over their shoulders,” says Lowell. “It’s been phenomenal.”

The school would like to expand its Lync-based distance-learning program beyond the borders of Washington State. It is already educating a few students in other states and would like to access teachers and resources from other schools, as well. “We hope to be the example for using Lync for education for the visually impaired,” says Lukowski. “Only a finite number of teachers can teach visually impaired students. If we can work with a teacher somewhere else who has special skills, our students will benefit. Eventually, we would like to connect all of the schools for the blind.”

For more information about Microsoft Lync Server 2013, go to:

Solution Overview

Organization Size: 110 employees

Organization Profile

The Washington State School for the Blind is a residential public school in Vancouver, Washington. It is also a state agency that provides services to visually impaired students all over the state of Washington.

Software and Services
  • Microsoft Lync Server 2013
  • Microsoft Lync 2013
  • Microsoft PowerPoint 2013

Vertical Industries
  • Primary & Secondary Edu/ K-12
  • Higher Education

United States

Business Need
  • Business Productivity
  • Unified Communications

IT Issue
Personal Productivity