Research

Digitising exams – enhancing accessibility for pupils with additional support needs

Using assistive and communication technology for pupils with additional needs, CALL Scotland improved inclusivity in schools’ national assessments.

Digital Exams

Thematic hubs

Social Justice and Inclusion

Digital Education

Research expert 

Paul Nisbet​

Research centre 

CALL Scotland

What was the problem? 

Pupils with disabilities or additional support needs may require support in examinations in order to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding effectively. In 2006, the most common types of Assessment Arrangements requested in Scotland were Extra Time, a Reader, and a Scribe. (Nisbet & Barry, 2008). There were three problems however in providing this support:

  1. The use of readers and scribes is expensive as each pupil requires a separate room and an invigilator as well as the scribe/reader.
  2. Using such assistance teaches pupils to rely on others rather than developing independent skills for later life.
  3. Many pupils dislike using readers/scribes and would prefer to sit the exam independently.

In addition, pupils with additional support needs (ASN) frequently use assistive technology to access the curriculum at school and at home, and need this option to be provided in assessment contexts. 

What did we do?

Paul Nisbet worked with colleagues from the Scottish Qualifications Authority to research and create Digital Question Papers (DQPs) to enable pupils with ASN to independently sit SQA exams. In line with wider moves within Scottish schools to provide alternative formats to ‘print-disabled’ pupils (Nisbet & Aitken, 2007), the team developed digital examination papers, maintaining layout and design and ensuring the assessment itself was unchanged. There are two key differences between the digital and hard copy papers:

  1. Candidates with visual or reading difficulties can use a computer reader to listen to the questions spoken out by the computer, so that a human reader is not required;
  2. The question and answer papers have ‘answer boxes’ into which candidates can type on screen or use assistive technologies (including on-screen keyboards and computer dictation programs) to generate text.

The digital papers were piloted in 2005 and successful trials in the 2006 and 2007 examination diets led to the introduction of SQA Digital Question Papers in 2008 for candidates with ASN who have difficulty using traditional exam papers. 

What happened next? 

Enhancement of assessments

The impact of this research is significant: by 2018, 59% of Scottish state secondary schools were using Digital Question Papers (Nisbet, 2018) and by 2019 there were 21,296 requests for technology-based Assessment Arrangements compared to 9,884 for a reader and 5,818 for a scribe (Nisbet 2019). More and more Scottish students are now able to demonstrate their abilities independently, using technology, rather than having to rely on someone else to read for them or write for them.

Watch a short video on learners talking about the technology

This alternative assessment format is not only used in external examinations: in 2013 the SQA prohibited the use of human scribes and readers in assessment of reading and writing in the new National Literacy Units but allowed use of computer readers.

Computer readers are now built in to most modern digital devices and this technology has been vital in enabling young people with reading difficulties to learn at home during the Covid-19 lockdown (Nisbet, 2020).

The impact of this work extends beyond Scotland while Scotland was the first country in the UK to provide interactive digital assessments, most of the UK GCSE and GCE awarding bodies began offering digital exam papers in 2014 and by 2019 these digital papers had become the most common type of modified papers requested (Ofqual 2019).

The take up of the technology has been supported by CALL Scotland through a dedicated website, webinars, professional learning courses and in-school training sessions. CALL also distributes computer reading software freely to students, schools, colleges, universities and the NHS.

Dedicated website

New Scottish Computer Voices

The pilot trials in 2007 revealed that pupils felt that the computer voices available at the time were unsatisfactory and so CALL partnered with CereProc, a Scottish firm specialising in synthetic speech, to create and licence a series of high quality computer voices with Scottish accents. Heather was released in 2008, Stuart (the world’s first Scottish male voice) in 2011, Ceitidh, (the world’s first Scottish Gaelic voice) in 2015, and 2019 saw the release of Andrew and Mairi, the world’s first Scottish child computer voices. Find audio samples and links to these voices at the bottom of this page.

This pioneering technology is licensed for all public bodies in Scotland so that the voices can be installed on computers in school and at home, by students in school and at College and University, and by people who have no speech and who use the voices in their electronic voice output communication devices. In making these voices available Scottish students are able to access the Scottish curriculum using Scottish computer voices.

In 2019, CALL Scotland and CereProc were awarded the Design for Diversity prize for this work to create and make available the Scottish Computer Voices.

CereProc

CALL Scotland and CereProc Win Design for Diversity Award

Technology continues to develop and students are now using a range of technologies in school, such as iPads and Chromebooks. Paul Nisbet continues to research and advise SQA and practitioners on technology-based examination arrangements. Two recent publications are:

 

I personally would like to see digital exams as the default choice for pupils with physical disabilities, and paper, helpers, scribes etc as options that would need to be specially requested, because I believe they [digital exams] are empowering, less difficult to administer and cost-effective. 

Staff feedback

It made me feel more confident.

Student feedback

It was much better not having to spend so much time on my spelling.

Student feedback

I found it much easier to put my answers down on the computer

Student feedback

Media

Synthesised Text-to-Speech gives Scottish children a voice again!

 All voice samples

Audio sample: Heather  Audio sample: Caitidh  Audio sample: Stuart 

Related study programmes

Inclusive Education (MSc/PgDip/PgCert)

Inclusive Digital Technology course (Professional Learning)