Virtual Learning Starter Kit: Windows Computers

As we all get ready to go back to school, especially with either the reality or potentiality of teaching virtually from a distance, many of us are having to make decisions about the sorts of software learning platform and hardware device solutions that will best meet the needs of our students.  Today, I am going to present an overview of Windows Laptops as a high-quality option to consider, situated in my context as an assistive technology specialist at a residential school for the blind in the southeast US.

At my school, we have students in a variety of educational programs, from standard academic curriculum to modified transition programming to life skills curriculum.  Point being, we have to figure out what sorts of hardware solutions can meet our various students' educational needs; these happen to be dictated in no small part by their visual experience. 

The way that I attack this problem is to first consider the types of devices that have been used before as what I like to call "primary learning devices." These will the first thing used for the most digital interactions and activities.  At my school, examples of these include computers, iPads, and a variety of personal cellphones.  In our specific circumstances, our school was fortunate to receive CARES Act funds with which we could purchase various technologies to meet our students' learning needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Our issue we faced was that, given a certain preference for a certain solution (more to come in a second), we did not have enough of said solution to provide one to each of our students.  So, we had to figure out what sorts of devices we needed to purchase to be prepared to provide devices to each student for their best educational success.

As the title suggests, the "primary learning device" I referred to was Windows laptop computers.  As you might ask why, let me explain.  I have found that generally speaking, primary learning devices do not need to be matched with students based on their specific disabilities.  They are best selected based on their functionality and an audit of their accessibility features.  From my experience, the best platforms for students with visual impairments will be Windows computers, iPad tablets, as well as Mac computers.  Furthermore, I like to recommend solutions, software or hardware, that my students are most likely to encounter in the "real world," specifically where they might work.  What does that lead me to land on?  Windows computers.  Indeed, well over 75% of devices in use are either running Windows 7 or Windows 10.  What I tell students and families is that in most jobs they might get where a computer will be used, it will be a Windows computer.  So, there's no time like the present to become highly proficient in its use.

So let's dive into Windows laptops a little more.  Here are some of the reasons I think they are great as primary learning devices for virtual learning:

  • Full-fledged operating system that can run any program that a school might need to have run. Not just Chrome OS apps or iOS apps as with Chromebooks and iPads that are often nonexistant or limited in their features when compared to the desktop versions.  Plus if you are a Google Classroom school, your student can still access that via Chrome Browser on their Windows computer.  Thus, the productivity potential of users with Windows 10 computers is higher than if a Chromebook or iPad was being used.
  • Notably, Windows computers allow for the use of desktop application versions of Office 365, including Word, Outlook, and Teams.  Microsoft's desktop applications are highly accessible with the three big Windows sdcreen readers: JAWS, NVDA, and Narrator.  Because of this great accessibility, our students who use screen readers have full use of educational productivity, communication, and interaction solutions.
  • Windows computers also provide a wide range of compatibiltiy with necessary peripheral devices that students with visual impairments use, including refreshable braille displays (via bluetooth or USB) and switches.  Our school's speech and language staff are most proficient with supporting USB switches and PowerPoint based interactive stories, so Windows is a great platform for facilitating these experiences.
  • Windows has simply been around.  Most families will be familiar with the platform, and in my opinion it is among the easiest to provide support to via guides or troubleshooting; it is the easiest platform, in my experience, for me to walk individuals through when figuring out an issue.
  • Portable, with variety of size options available.  Larger screens for some students with low vision, as well as smaller screens for those who just need the processing power (screen reader users).  Plus, Number Pads are typically available when screen sizes are 15 inches and up.
  • Accessibility features are wide ranging and versatile.  Students with low vision can use Windows Magnifier, which is free and built-in to the Ease of Access center. Magnifier has been upgraded SIGNIFICANTLY since Windows 10 was introduced, with features that virtually make ZoomText unnecessary.  Similarly, Windows Narrator is an increasingly functional screen reading program that is completely free and built in to all Windows devices.  As a baseline option, screen reader users skilled in Narrator can perform most basic productivity tasks on ANY Windows 10 computer.  Additionally, there are numerous other accessibility settings designed to accommodate visual users' experience viewing screen content, from increased mouse cursor sizes, a variety of high contrast settings and themes, the list goes on.  For nearly any visual experience, Windows 10 can likely accommodate and support that user.
  • Technical support is also a biggie for teachers supporting students from a distance.  Windows 10 has a neat, built-in support tool called Quick Assist which very simply establishes a connection between two computers to either allow for control or just share a screen.  This will be invaluable when questions about specific settings come up and it is too difficult to talk students and families through troubleshooting steps.

I'm going to get off my soapbox now, but I do hope some of these considerations are useful for you as you make decisions about "primary learning devices" for your students.  I hope to post more Virtual Learning Starter Kit posts soon, including a deep dive on Quick Assist.  Leave a comment below with anything you'd like to share!