Between 10-13% of people in the UK have a print impairment which means they have difficulty accessing text-based resources, varying from dyslexia through to visual impairments and motor difficulties.
When you put that in a learning context, that’s a whole lot of people who aren’t able to comfortably access educational resources in the traditional way. And until this year, most of that number had a high chance of being under-served in their final exams.
Previously, print-impaired learners tended to be given extra time to complete their papers, but that was about it. To go beyond that was either really expensive, a logistical headache, or both. For example, bringing in a human reader would cost a lot and – because they are noisy – require a separate room for every candidate.
Digital exams with text to speech (whereby computer software 'reads' out whatever is on the screen) was another option but not without huge effort for the learning provider. Digital versions had to be created in-house only an hour before the exam, involving scanning, converting to digital text and proof reading to ensure they could be used independently.
Good for learners
Given these constraints, it is perhaps unsurprising that colleges found it difficult to go the extra mile to support these learners with higher level support, which is a real shame when you consider the inherent advantages of digital exams.
Research shows that learners using computer readers ‘re-read’ questions more often than those using human readers. This seems to relate to the sense that a computer makes no value judgement - it doesn’t get annoyed when asked to read something a fourth of fifth time – while a learner could worry that a human reader might.
In addition, digital text provides the ability to change colours, magnify text and images and navigate swiftly through a document - things that significantly reduce the barriers for people with print impairments. Learners using digital papers are therefore more likely to spend time and energy on demonstrating their knowledge rather than struggling to access their exam paper.
Driven from the top
Thankfully things are now beginning to change to improve exam conditions for print-impaired students.
From the 2015 exam season, Ofqual requires awarding bodies to offer digital copies of their exam papers for print-disabled learners.
While it may not seem much, I believe this to be the beginning of a major sea change. The new requirements give learning providers the opportunity to offer fairer assessment without incurring the sort of costs and admin burden they would have previously, as they won’t need to create the resources themselves.
The upshot should – theoretically – be improved results for this cohort of learners, as well as benefits for the organisation by heightening the importance of a digitally-enhanced curriculum.
For the learner to be entitled to take digital exams, an organisation must verify that this is their normal way of accessing the curriculum. This is an important safeguard for the learner because they will be accessing the exam through an additional software layer that will include at least Adobe Reader, if not additional tools (such as text to speech) as well. If they are not familiar with using them, they will be disadvantaged rather than supported.
How you actually go about making ‘digital’ the normal way of learning, however, needs some thought, as there are wider implications for teaching and learning. Technology enhanced learning is vital for supporting accessibility and inclusion, but it is also good for all learners. It’s worth thinking how you can do this by:
- Making class notes and presentations available on the virtual learning environment (VLE)
- Tying in reading lists with e-book collections you currently subscribe to
- Asking the right questions at procurement stage to ensure e-book platforms you subscribe to in future are as accessible as possible
- Taking advantage of free services that offer books in accessible formats, eg, Load2Learn
- Contacting publishers to request digital copies of core texts for disabled learners
- Making sure text to speech available across the network. Plenty of free tools exist to support this, for example, free high quality voices are available for Scotland and England
- Educating staff and learners on the accessibility potential of documents in pdf so that everyone can take advantage.
Help is on hand for anyone who wants to offer digital exams. I have been working with the British Dyslexia Association, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), CALL Scotland and the UK Association for Accessible Formats (UKAAF) to support these changes, and we are all able to provide guidance on how they will affect various parties. For example, the UKAAF and Jisc have created centre-focused guidance, as well as guidance on how to adapt pdf documents, for learners, carers and teachers.
Please do check out the guidance. If you would like any further advice or have any questions please contact me.