As a student with low vision, I have received classroom assignments and papers in inaccessible formats more times than I can count, even though I have disability accommodations that enable me to receive information in accessible formats. This used to frustrate me a lot in high school, because I felt that if I couldn’t access something, it meant that I should be exempt from having to complete the assignment or whatever the task was at hand. However, the reality was that if I didn’t do an assignment, I would be treated just like the other students and given a failing grade, even if the reasons I couldn’t complete it were out of my control. So I started to develop the skills to create my own accessible materials and adapt assignments as needed and wished that there was some app out there that could make things easier for me in the classroom.
Well, Microsoft made my wish come true with the Microsoft Office Lens app. While the app came out after I had already graduated from high school, it has been a game-changer for how I get accessible materials in college both inside and outside the classroom and remains one of the most used apps across all of my devices. Today, I’m going to be sharing why every student needs Microsoft Office Lens, and how I use the Microsoft Office Lens app as someone with low vision.
What is Microsoft Office Lens?
Microsoft Office Lens is a free app on Android and iOS that allows users to scan in copies of documents, photos, whiteboards, business cards, and similar content using their device’s camera. After scanning in the content, users can further edit the image or keep it as is and export it in the format of their choice. While users will need a Microsoft account to access the app, they do not need to have an Office 365 subscription or any other paid service, and they do not need to be connected to the internet or data to use the app either.
Microsoft Office Lens Interface
After opening the app, the app displays a full-screen view of the device’s back camera, with four content type options on the bottom of the screen. Users can swipe between the different content types to determine which one will work best for the content they are scanning. While each content mode is slightly different in how it is displayed on the screen, scanning is as easy as pressing the large white button in the center of the screen- just like taking a picture.
Types of content in Microsoft Office Lens
The whiteboard option is optimized for taking pictures of dry-erase or large boards, and is perfect for classrooms. The whiteboard background is automatically lightened in order to improve the contrast of the writing, and the text can be converted to OCR so it can be read by a screen reader or used within another application.
The document option is best for taking pictures of papers, large amounts of text, pages, or smaller posters. Microsoft Office Lens has a built-in cropping tool that will automatically filter out background items and scan only the page, though this cropping can be adjusted in the editing screen (more on that later). Users can add multiple pages to one document if needed as well.
As the name suggests, this mode works best for business cards or contact information. The automatic cropping is available within this feature as well, though the final image can only be exported as a Microsoft Office OneNote contact and image, or as an image to the phone gallery- it cannot be exported in any of the other formats.
Sometimes, users just want to take pictures of other pictures, and that’s where the photo function works well. The automatic cropping feature is not available in this mode, however, it is the only scanning mode that supports the front-facing camera, so it is still incredibly useful. This is probably the scanning mode I use the least often out of all four, as I typically prefer to use my device camera for photos instead.
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What is the image quality in Microsoft Office Lens?
Users have the option to set the resolution of their content in Office Lens to the following ratios:
- 4.1 M (2688 x 512) (default)
- 3.1 M (2048 x 1536)
- 2.1 M (1920 x 1080)
As for the images themselves, environmental lighting can play a role in whether an image has a strange shadow effect or not, though the technology built into the app does a good job of filtering this out. Whiteboards do not need to be perfectly clean in order to get a good picture either, though some symbols may look strange when reading in Immersive Reader, which is to be expected with the current limits of OCR technology.
After scanning in content, users have the option to edit the images in several different ways. At the top of the screen, there are icons for the following options:
- Change type (document, whiteboard, photo, business card)
- Add text, which uses the default device font
- Draw on top of image
Users can also choose to add filters, which include:
- Black and white
Users can also skip editing their images and advance to the export screen if needed.
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Exporting and supported file formats
Microsoft Office Lens supports several different options for exporting scans, and with the exception of the business card mode, all of the scans can be exported in the following formats:
- Save to gallery (device gallery)
- PDF (to OneDrive or device storage)
- Microsoft OneNote notebook
- OneDrive folder
- Microsoft Word OCR document
- Microsoft PowerPoint
Users can also edit the title of their scans, which I highly recommend doing for organizational purposes- otherwise, the default name is Office Lens and a time stamp.
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Using Immersive Reader
Another option on the export screen is for users to open their scans using Microsoft Immersive Reader, which opens within the Microsoft Office Lens app. From Immersive Reader, users can have text read out loud and adjust the text spacing and size so that it is easier to read for users with print disabilities. If this option is selected, users will have the option to either save the content in another format or delete it once they are done reading with the app.
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Does Microsoft Office Lens work with a screen reader?
Yes, Microsoft Office Lens is fully compatible with VoiceOver and TalkBack, so screen reader users can use the app independently. The screen reader will tell the user if the object is in the frame as well, which I find helpful as it means that I can make sure the item is in focus.
Another app by Microsoft that I recommend for screen reader users is Microsoft Seeing AI, which can read documents and images out loud without saving the files themselves.
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Ways I’ve used Microsoft Office Lens
I feel like I have used Microsoft Office Lens in hundreds of different ways both inside the classroom and in my everyday life. Some of the most common ways that I use it include:
- Reading assignments in class
- Checking out a poster on the bulletin board
- Scanning in something my professor drew on the board
- Reading a business card at a conference
- Scanning sketches or drawings I did on my whiteboard
- Digitizing a physical photo
- Organizing papers on my desk
- Reading letters or notices that show up in my dorm
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How my professors have reacted
As I’ve mentioned, I use Microsoft Office Lens in the classroom frequently. My college is very flexible about student technology use, so I didn’t need to ask special permission to use my phone or tablet in class, though I recognize that not all professors or teachers are as open to technology as mine are. Since the app does not connect to the internet or pull in information from outside sources, using the app would not put students at an unfair advantage to others- it is simply a way to scan in materials and convert them into other accessible formats.
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Microsoft Office Lens is one of my favorite apps across all of my devices and has helped me tremendously with being able to independently access materials and create accessible materials that I can enlarge and read with my low vision. I highly recommend that everyone download this app, especially students with print disabilities, as it is a great way to scan a variety of different types of content in a short period of time.