Washington State School for the Blind student Karley Patching, 16, uses a special videoconferencing program for an algebra lesson with teacher Robin Lowell, who is teaching the class from her home in Snoqualmie, 170 miles from Vancouver.
Educators Robin Lowell and Sherry Hahn were handed a tough problem: Teach algebraic concepts to visually impaired kids 170 miles away. With the help of technology, they've solved the equation.
That's why teachers at the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver recently stood in the 1,200-year-old Prague Castle in the Czech Republic as invited guests of Microsoft. They were among 21 educators honored worldwide by the software giant for using technology to bring innovation into classrooms. The Partners in Learning 2012 Global Forum in Prague, which ran from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1, brought together 500 of the most innovative teachers, school leaders and government officials from 80 countries. The group had been narrowed from more than 250,000 teachers competing in national and regional forums.
Lowell and Hahn's first-place finish at the American forum qualified them for the global competition in Prague, where they placed second in cutting-edge use of technology.
The WSSB educators were pioneers in using Microsoft Lync to connect teachers and visually impaired students miles apart. The videoconferencing tool is used extensively in the corporate world, but it hadn't been used much in schools. The teachers used Lync to connect with technology such as Braille displays and screen readers that enable lectures, whiteboard displays and other class materials to be delivered in accessible formats such as Braille, large print and audio. Through Lync, students can share their work, ask for help or submit work to the teacher using desktop sharing, instant messaging and file transfer.
"Using Microsoft Lync, the teacher can instruct and correct, see all the students' work and make corrections instantly," said Hahn, WSSB digital research and curriculum development coordinator.
Lowell possesses a difficult-to-find combination of being highly qualified to teach algebra and to instruct visually impaired students. When her husband's new job required their family to move to Snoqualmie, 170 miles from Vancouver, the administrators at WSSB retained Lowell and sought a solution to make distance learning work.
That solution was Microsoft Lync.
On a recent December morning, WSSB students Karley Patching, 16, of Vancouver; Abby Griffith, 18, of Ridgefield; Juan Aguilar, 15, of SeaTac and Ali Gamez, 21, of Wenatchee sat in the Vancouver classroom. Bryant Walker, 15, participated remotely from Weiser, Idaho, 374 miles from Vancouver. Walker attends Weiser High School, with a student body just shy of 500 students.
Although his school has algebra teachers, none of them is qualified to teach visually impaired students. His district is too small to employ such a teacher.
"This class is a great experience for me," said Walker via Lync. "We have a great teacher who is qualified and knows what she's doing. I've never had a teacher certified to teach V.I. (visually impaired) students. I can interact with other students in the class and ask questions."
Walker's mother heard about Lowell's algebra classes and contacted Washington State School for the Blind. The Weiser School District contracts with WSSB, so Walker could take the class. Now, Walker and five other students — some as far away as Montana — are enrolled in the school's classes and participate remotely.
In Snoqualmie, Lowell wrote the problem on a whiteboard: 6 = 3 + 5 (D - 2).
Aguilar, the only student with limited sight in the class, put his face right up to his display screen to see the problem.
Lowell read the problem aloud more than once so students could type it into their keyboards, where it was translated into Braille on their screen readers, devices that allow students to read through touch. Some students used headphones that read aloud what students typed on their keyboards.
"Once you have your answer, send me an instant message with your answer," Lowell said. "And here's a hint: It may not be a whole number."
The students bent over their keyboards and began solving the problem. While they were working, Lowell interacted with the students, asked them questions as she watched the work in progress.
The new technology has served the students well. One student who was told that she wouldn't be able to advance beyond basic math is now thriving in Algebra I, Hahn said. Another student who came to the school with only one year of high school math and was struggling is now a senior and tackling precalculus, she said.