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H807 – Disability support in computer-based assessment

February 21, 2011

After finishing H810 Accessible Online learning: supporting disabled students, I was interested to find out how the University of Nottingham accommodated for their disabled students, therefore I chose this case study. Unfortunately it is not clear in which year the University started to support disabled students in computer-based assessment.

Well, let’s start with the background and context.

The University states as main reasons for their disability support the growing number of online summative exams and the number of new laws (Discrimination Disability Act – DDA 1992, Special Education Needs and Disability Act -SENDA 2001 UK) that have been enacted to protect the interest of individuals with disabilities who study in higher/further education. Although the rate of self-reported disability case is low with 3% to 9% across different faculties, the University sees it as their responsibility to ensure that various forms of disability are fairly accommodated and that students receive appropriate support in computer-based assessment.  Accommodating for the needs of students with disability is law and the university wanted to avoid discrimination and to place disabled students  in a substantial disadvantage. The main aim being to focus on the measurement of subject matter understanding, rather to access a student’s ability to interact with a particular assessment format.

Staff involved in the design included disability support officers, administrative personnel and IT support staff. The priority was to create a design that could be quickly implemented before each exam with no specialist personnel required and that could be used on any computer used for examination. The first contact point in the implementation process was to talk with the disability support officers from the Disability Policy Unit to find out the range of accommodations that might be required. The unit advised the programming team on what in theory would be needed and the programming team reported back what was actually possible with the technology. The design is now formally embedded within an official departmental/institutional policy. The normal procedure for disabled students to achieve disability support is that they contact the Disability Unit which will then report back to a faculty-based administrative unit with recommendations for any exam adjustments, then this will be relayed to an IT person to alter the examinees profile within the system. The student is then informed about the changes and asked to evaluate these adjustments. So far accommodations are only made for individuals which have been properly assessed by the Disability Policy Unit. Personally, I find that ethically not in line with the DAA, 1992 who demand that ‘reasonable adjustments’ should be anticipatory.

Tangible benefits

Screen readers and Braille tablets are in place and the assessment systems allows full customisation of background/foreground colours and a range of different font sizes facilitating thus e.g. diyslexic students, colour blind students. All these changes can be controlled through the creation of personal profiles with the system and are already in place when the exam starts. The TouchStone assessment systems facilitates keyboard operation, thus affords the inclusion of students who may not be able to use the computer mouse. Timing adjustments can be made within the system as well, allowing thus more time for examinees. A separate room is normally offered for candidates with additional time. All these adjustments enable most disabled students to participate on online examination without experiencing disadvantages contrary to paper-based exams and to ensure that they are not treated less favourable.

Disadvantages/drawbacks

The upfront development time to alter the system to be more flexible and to offer a simple interface to allow non-technical staff to easily set student preferences and the accompanying costs was seen as the largest disadvantage. The high level of negotiation that is required with examinees is considered as ongoing drawback. However, the University still retain to their disability support system, although the numbers of students requesting various accommodation is still low, because the University of Nottingham is committed to equality of opportunity. Due to the low numbers no formal research has yet been conducted, but informal discussions with individuals shows this approach is welcome.

Innovations

After finishing H810 where I learned a lot about good practice and how to best safeguard accessibility, the disability support in computer-based assessment sounds simply like a reasonable adjustments that the University is legally bound to provide to avoid placing students with disability at a substantial disadvantage. However, as the author of the case study Simon Wilkinson reports from a number of ‘new’ laws naming the DDA (1992) and SENDA (2001) I almost assume that at this time not only online exams were pretty novel, but even more make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of a range of disabled students. For many disabled students technology in general and assistive technology (AT) in particular can make a big difference and afford relief, however if not adjustments are made then a second digital divide, because though students have access to computer, they might lack AT, which means that disabled students are still ‘have-nots’ (Seale, 2006). Hence, computer-based assessment can have an added value and build on the success of personal adaptation within the system the University has now embarked upon a re-design programme to allow customisation of the VLE.

References
JISC (2008) Exploring Tangible Benefits of e-Learning: Does Investment Yield Interest? [online], http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/publications/publications/info/tangible-benefits-publication (Accessed 14 February 2011).

Seale, J. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice, Abingdon, Routledge; also available online at http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/ login?url=http://lib.myilibrary.com?id=52212 (accessed 7 September 2010).


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