We believe that everyone should have access to technology. One way Microsoft is helping to transform education for teachers and students with disabilities is through our global partnerships. UNESCO is one of many partners we work with because we share a commitment to digital inclusion in education―inclusive classrooms, personalized learning, and accessible technology. These elements are the cornerstones of our partnership. Today, at the International Conference on Assistive Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Microsoft is hosting a panel to discuss a report released by UNESCO entitled "Consultative Accessible ICTs and Personalized Learning for Students with Disabilities."
Children with disabilities worldwide make up the world’s largest and most disadvantaged minority in terms of education. An estimated 186 million children with disabilities worldwide have not completed their primary school education. For students with disabilities, access to educational opportunities can often be enhanced through accessible technology. Personalized learning requires attention to the unique needs of all students—particularly students with learning difficulties or physical disabilities. The benefits of accessible technology and personalized learning can extend to all students, including those with even minor impairments.
To focus on this issue, Microsoft and UNESCO convened a two-day meeting in November 2011 to bring together 30 knowledgeable participants from more than 10 countries to discuss accessible technology for students and report on practical solutions for educators. All participants were deeply knowledgeable about accessibility and technology use in schools. Participants included teachers, school administrators, experts from the IT industry, and representatives from organizations with a focus on disability issues.
The UNESCO report outlines practical solutions, such as:
1. Maximize use of accessibility features in current school technology. Mainstream computers and other technology used in schools often include settings and features that enhance accessibility, yet many educators are not trained on accessibility, and do not know which features will help students with specific disabilities. Increasing awareness of available accessibility features and providing teacher training will help many students without requiring schools to acquire new technology. To help schools, Microsoft publishes accessibility guides that address solutions for current and older PCs. In addition, Microsoft recently published Curriculum Resources for Special Education for Windows 7 and Office 2010. This curriculum resource provides specific examples and best practices that show how the PC can be personalized for students with learning style differences or physical disabilities.
2. Support teachers with training, curriculum resources, and accessibility contacts. Teacher training and support is critical. For teachers to be able to help students personalize their PCs and adjust accessibility settings, teachers must first have the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources themselves. Also, accessibility is a complex subject that requires an understanding of how learning style differences and disabilities impact computer use. Teachers need to know who to contact within the school or local community for information about accessibility. Some schools—including Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia―have accessibility teams that conduct student evaluations, accessibility training, and have assistive technology experts to support the school community. Also available from Microsoft is an accessibility teacher training workshop.
3. Consider students’ accessibility needs early in curriculum development. And, create teaching materials that are accessible to students with disabilities. Schools are able to successfully integrate students with disabilities when teachers understand how to adjust curriculum and create accessible technology materials. For example, a student who is blind at Colegio San Benito in Santiago, Chile uses a laptop with Windows, Microsoft Office, and a screen reader. Her teachers provide assignments, quizzes, and exams via Word documents.
4. Facilitate students to learn the life skill of personalizing technology. This skill will benefit students as they progress through the educational system and into the workforce.
5. Consider accessibility when planning school technology. During technology planning, purchase decisions, and deployment, consider the accessibility needs of students. Weaving accessibility into the overall technology plan rather than adding accessibility as an afterthought could reduce overall technology costs. A book called, "The Practical (and Fun) Guide to Assistive Technology in Public Schools," addresses these topics and best practices for creating an accessibility team in public schools in the United States.
6. Make accessible technology a key consideration for national and regional policies. To achieve inclusive education, accessible information and communications technology (ICTs) should be explored by educational authorities and Ministries with a view to updating national and regional policies.
Accessible technology has the power to enrich education for a population of students with disabilities that otherwise would have a difficult time communicating. As students with disabilities are integrated into mainstream classrooms, teachers need support, training, and effective resources to help students succeed. That is why Microsoft is dedicated to building accessibility into our products and providing accessibility resources for educators.
Last week, I had the chance to attend the 2nd annual SXSWedu event. It was a great time for networking and learning, and I think they’ve taken the spirit and energy of the main SXSW film and music festival and applied to a more thoughtful and open dialogue for education reform.
I had an opportunity to lead a panel on game-based learning and its impact on student achievement with some experts in the field from Rochester Institute of Technology, Just Press Play, Second Avenue Learning and Chicago Public Schools. We talked about how gamification could impact the core of the way in which learning and content is transformed, how we can create new models for teaching more innovatively, as well as thinking differently around getting kids connected in personal ways both as it relates to gender equity, as well as driving the right kind of education outcomes for careers and skills. It was a thoughtful conversation but there’s lots of work to explore in this space.
I had the opportunity to talk more with Stephen Jacobs from RIT after the panel to share some more of his insights with Just Press Play and what he is doing at RIT.