Making the world more accessible with Sway

Today’s post was written by Brett Bigham, 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a recipient of the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence in 2015.

I’m the first to admit I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to technology. It’s not that I’m not forward thinking, it’s more that I’ve spent way too many hours learning “the new best thing” only to have my district ditch it six months later for a newer, better best thing that only takes twice as long to learn. But Microsoft did something with their new Sway program that has created something every teacher needs. And they did it by asking teachers what they needed.

How Microsoft swayed me

For the past two years, I have participated in Microsoft Sway focus groups at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) conference. Groups of tech-savvy and award-winning teachers were brought in to pick our brains about what Sway needed to be. The result is a school-friendly program that allows not only second graders, but second grade teachers, the ability to quickly produce high-quality curriculum-related presentations. The NNSTOY event collection and Sways have been published on Docs.com.

Helping students with autism explore the world

Some people with autism have great anxiety about traveling to new places. To address this in my classroom I have created “Ability Guidebooks”—a series of step-by-step directions in photobook form on how to access community events and destinations. These guidebooks help students become familiar with an upcoming destination. With each successful community outing, they become less fearful of that unknown making the world easier, safer and less frightening for them.

When I started the project, the guidebooks were for my students in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. We were going to go ride the Aerial Tram, so I went the week before and took pictures of all the steps needed to ride the tram. It was a smashing success and soon I was creating a new Ability Guidebook every week. After they began to stack up I realized that every person with autism in the city could benefit from the books. I started sharing them with other teachers and school districts and word got around that these supports for field trips existed. I was asked to do books for the county libraries and the Portland Airport, and suddenly my city was becoming a leader in supporting community involvement for people with autism.

In 2015, I was named a National Education Association Foundation Global Fellow and was sent to Peru as an ambassador for American Education. This amazing opportunity gave me the chance to create Ability Guidebooks in a whole new country. Since then, I have added 13 new cities, 7 more countries and the guidebooks have been translated into Spanish, Italian and German. There are books for the Parthenon, the Colosseum, St. Paul’s Cathedral and over 40 other international destinations! I have dedicated my free time to creating an international standard of autism supports. But even as I fought for accessibility, my own books were not accessible to everyone.

Using Sway to open doors

In their original format, the Ability Guidebooks were meant to be read online like a book. If you could not read or were blind, you would have to rely on someone reading the book to you. Sway allowed me to overcome this problem. The program is set up not only to work in multiple languages, making translating the work much easier, but also allows for recordings to be added to the presentation. With the touch of a button a student who does not read can choose to play an audio version. By moving my work into Sway, it is opening doors to every student who cannot read or see the books.

You can see an example guidebook built in Sway here:

In partnership with Microsoft, I have launched almost 50 Ability Guidebooks in 3 different languages on Docs.com for anyone to use. I encourage you to add comments to improve the guidebooks and share links to Sways with your ability guidebooks so that we together can build the world’s largest collection of Ability Guidebooks on Docs.com.

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That’s how Microsoft swayed me. They didn’t promise me the new best thing. They sat down with teachers and created a program that will modernize and energize your classroom and your student’s work. I’m not a salesman or a Microsoft employee. What I am is a teacher who has found a valuable classroom tool that is worth sharing.

Have a great year!

—Brett Bigham