July 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 3

Product Review

A Review of Window-Eyes Classroom Training

When the postcard arrived in the mail, it caught my attention. Braille and print on the same card is still atypical enough that, for those of us whose literacy is centered on braille, it is remembered. The news conveyed was that GW Micro would be hosting a series of training sessions around the country, classes designed to put more of the power of the popular Window-Eyes screenreader into the hands of its users.

Learning to use any computer and its various applications is a challenge for anyone, but for users who are blind or visually impaired, the learning curve is particularly steep. Let's begin with a basic computer with a Windows 2000 or higher operating system. Although every computer user requires time to learn how to navigate the screen and manipulate specific applications, the blind or low-vision user immediately requires a second layer of complexity, a screen-reading or screen-magnification program to make accessing that Windows operating system possible. Whereas the sighted user has myriad visual prompts--icons, pop-up menus, and both text and graphic instruction at every turn--the blind user needs to learn keystroke workarounds to take advantage of the same design features.

Individual learning styles vary. Some blind users read manuals (in whatever format they happen to be provided) from cover to cover. Others jump with daring into the middle of a new application, hoping no serious crashes will occur while they poke around, trying to determine which keystroke might accomplish which task.

Users of assistive technology have never had the advantage of local retail outlets where "test drives" of computer products might occur. And, once the products are purchased, the blind user can't go to a computer class at the local high school, college, or computer store for basic training. In an attempt to level the playing field once again, GW Micro launched the idea seven or eight years ago of bringing training sessions to customers.

In 2008, the decision was made to step up the pace. Since early 2009, the company has offered at least two training sessions a month, holding classes in cities across the country, from New York to Sacramento, Jacksonville to Chicago, and a host of others along the way. About a dozen more are planned before the end of 2010. Classes range in size from four to 10 students. We at AccessWorld thought it would be interesting to share with readers how these classes are conducted, so when one came to a facility near me--Clovernook Center for the Blind in Cincinnati--I attended.

The training was a two-day session, running from 8:30 to 4:00, with a few short breaks and time out for lunch. Trainers were Jeremy Curry, GW Micro's director of training, and Marc Solomon, regional sales manager. In our class seven students were already using Window-Eyes, ranging from veteran users of a decade or more to periodic users with a reasonable level of comfort with the product. Five were blind or low-vision users, whereas two were sighted teachers of visually impaired students. Three came from other towns, 60 to 70 miles away, and one had flown from Phoenix to Cincinnati to participate. Clearly, customers feel there is a need for this kind of focused training.

We were instructed beforehand not to bring our own computers, an approach whose merit became instantly clear. All work stations were identical, configured by the trainers prior to our arrival to maximize learning time and minimize the time that might otherwise have been devoted to tweaking and trouble-shooting. Until a year or so ago, the company allowed students to bring their own computers or had work stations set up by the host facility. So much valuable training time was lost trouble-shooting and configuring personal systems to enable students to follow instruction efficiently, however, that the decision was made to provide all work stations and configure them identically before students arrive. Ten netbooks running Windows XP and 10 running Windows 7 are now allocated for training purposes. In our class, each student's workstation was essentially identical: a netbook with a full QWERTY keyboard attached and a set of headphones. Each netbook was running Windows XP with Window-Eyes 7.2 and Office 2007. I had alerted the trainers beforehand to my personal dependency on braille and my wish to bring my own braille display. They were extremely accommodating on this point and even pointed out features specific to braille from time to time.

The first step was to instruct the group on setting speech parameters--volume, rate, pitch, and tone--to personal preferences. Thus, by using headphones, each student was able to work in a speech environment that was comfortable and no one had the distraction of listening to a babbling chorus of atonal speech synthesizers. The space used was a conference room in a rehabilitation facility, and was consequently quiet, acoustically friendly, and well suited to a relaxed teaching environment.

During introductions, each student was asked to name one application or feature he or she desired to learn or become more proficient in during the training. A concerted effort was made to cover all of the areas mentioned and, when time constraints made it difficult, the group voted on which of two applications was most needed.

Jeremy Curry and Marc Solomon made for a perfect combination of lively and informative training. Jeremy is visually impaired and, of course, a stellar user of the Window-Eyes product. The majority of his teaching throughout the two intensive days of the course was done without consulting notes or his own computer. His teaching style flowed smoothly from one point to another, always pausing patiently for questions and never losing the momentum of the particular task being addressed. Marc Solomon, who is sighted, knows the product intimately and complemented Jeremy's relaxed, easy manner wonderfully with a high-energy approach.

During the two-day course, using the power of Window-Eyes in Microsoft Word, Excel, and Outlook was covered, as was the navigation of webpages, forms, and other online material. Along the way, countless tips and tricks combining Windows' own commands with Window-Eyes' special features were explained. Using the mouse from the keyboard was a concept that drew particular delight from everyone around the table, as was the exercise highlighting the GW Micro Script Central page. Script Central is a collection of some 200 Window-Eyes scripts, written mostly by blind users of the product, that can be downloaded free of charge from the GW Micro website. Scripts range from frivolous and fun to impressively powerful programs (checking weather forecasts, for instance, to enhancing navigation in a Microsoft Word document) and, once shown the simple steps to doing so, can be easily installed by any user.

The respect for individual learning styles was a particularly significant ingredient in the success of the training. Two students were fully sighted, two low vision, and three totally blind. Some were veteran computer users, whereas others were more moderately experienced. Some were long-time Window-Eyes users who had come to acquire more advanced techniques, whereas others had only used the product sporadically. At all times throughout the course, students were kept at the same pace and on the same page, so to speak, working through exercises simultaneously. If a student fell behind or was "stuck" in a computer glitch, one trainer or the other immediately rushed to the aid of that individual, patiently offering one-on-one instruction to bring the student back on track.

Because so many blind and low-vision users are essentially self taught, there was often a celebrated "aha" moment when the instructors illustrated a particularly efficient shortcut to accomplish a familiar task. Setting place markers to return to a familiar point on a webpage, for instance, elicited such a response in more than one person, and discovering the simplicity of using the Window-Eyes mouse pointer to explore all text on a screen met with unanimous pleasure.

At regular intervals, the instructors would stop to review, seeking input from each member of the class to be sure that material was being absorbed. Whether one's mission is to sing an aria or build a budget worksheet in Microsoft Excel, it is one thing to know how to accomplish the task and quite another to break that task into consecutive steps and impart the information to others in a manner that is both effective and engaging. I have observed many a technical guru--both in the mainstream and in the field of assistive technology--who could personally perform something akin to magic at a computer keyboard but whose ability to pass on that knowledge to another was weak at best. Not every "techie," in other words, has the ability to teach! A successful learning experience is the result of time spent beforehand by the presenter to organize material, breaking sometimes complex techniques into smaller components, accompanied by a gift for teaching the material. Both elements were clearly present in the Window-Eyes training. Techniques used in each application began simply and grew from the foundation. Keystrokes that required memorization were repeated often enough to enable students to recall them but not often enough to lose attention or momentum. Of perhaps even greater significance, all information throughout the two-day course was imparted with patience and respect.

At training's end, each student receives two CDs covering all material included in the course (one for basic, the other for intermediate), along with a spiral-bound braille summary of Window-Eyes hot keys and instruction on using the Window-Eyes manual. A certificate of completion bearing the student's name, also in both print and braille, is given to each member of the class.

Because the training is only two days long, no single application is covered in depth. The certificates awarded to each student upon completion indicate achievement in Window-Eyes basic and intermediate skills. I asked Jeremy Curry whether the company has considered an advanced course. At this time, there are only two training courses offered: the two-day training described in this article and a scripts-writing course for those individuals interested in that singular skill. Customized trainings have also been designed to meet the specific needs of organizations, focusing, for example, on the use of Window-Eyes with a particular application, such as Outlook or Excel. Because the most frequent comment regarding improvement of the course on evaluations has been to extend the training to three days, GW Micro is exploring that option with a three-day pilot in Oregon in September.

The description of training on the GW Micro website indicates that one day will be devoted to basic training and the other to intermediate. It further indicates that training will cover basic functions of the Windows operating system, Window-Eyes itself, Microsoft Office applications, Internet Explorer, and Mozilla Firefox. It cautions that class composition and time constraints will determine the degree to which all of the above are covered. In our particular class, for example, PowerPoint was not addressed. When we were well into the second day, however, and this became evident, Jeremy Curry asked whether we would rather focus on the Outlook calendar or PowerPoint. The unanimous vote was for Outlook. We did not address Firefox, either; this may well have been because, upon polling students during introductions, everyone present was using Internet Explorer.

The cost for the training is $325 per day, with an option to attend only one day if desired. Throughout our two-day training, sighted and blind users alike discovered features and concepts they had not previously known existed in Windows itself as well as in the various applications addressed. All were clearly pleased and impressed with the training received, expressing gratitude to the trainers as belongings were packed and departures made. If, in other words, the absence of a few elements covered was the trade for the constant effort to keep everyone moving forward and working in concert, it was a wise trade indeed. Talented teachers, organized material, and constant reinforcements to ensure that everyone was on the same page added up to a two-day training that was well worth the time and money spent.

For More Information

Upcoming GW Micro Window-Eyes trainings are scheduled for Little Rock, Atlanta, and Portland. Upcoming scripts training classes are planned in Dallas, Atlanta, and New York. GW Micro also conducts two-hour telephone trainings for $168 per session, concentrating on specific applications such as Window-Eyes with MS Excel, Window-Eyes with Outlook, or using Window-Eyes to navigate the Internet. For more information or to register, visit the GW Micro training website or call 260-489-3671.

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