Supporting students with disabilities in university examinations


by dullhunk on flickr

by dullhunk on flickr

It’s exam time at NUIM, and so thoughts go to supporting candidates with disabilities in their examinations.


We currently have about 40 different configurations of examination accommodations in our system. These include

  • Extra Time: The vast majority of candidates require additional time only, generally 10 minutes per hour. These students are generally those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
  • Smaller Venue: Many candidates benefit from taking their examinations in smaller rooms as opposed to the large exam halls. This group can include those who are easily distracted, require rest breaks or use computers.
  • Readers and Scribes: A reader is someone who reads the paper and script to the candidate. A scribe writes down what a candidate dictates. I’ll come back to these later.
  • Use of a PC: Candidates with visual difficulties, specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyspraxia) or physical conditions that make writing by hand impractical can use a computer to write their answers.
  • Other supports include enlarged papers, coloured papers, different furniture, separate venues. 

With almost three hundred candidates to accommodate, you can appreciate that there needs to be a good relationship between the Disability Office, Computer Services and most importantly, the Examinations Office. This solid relationship is in place now, but some years ago, it wasn’t the case. Some years ago, NUIM was faced with rising numbers of students with disabilities who needed to be supported in their examinations. The need to have additional rooms, invigilators, computers and support for these candidates puts strain on existing services and the three offices found they needed to communicate more much earlier.

While it seems very obvious in retrospect, having the three offices talking, sharing expertise and solutions has rsulted in a successful and suatainable model of supporting students in examinations.

  • The Disability Office with the student identifies what accomodations are required. An accomodation (or more likely a combination of accomodations) is represented by a code, and the candidate is tagged with this code on our University system. The student signs off on this accommodation.
  • The Examinations Office can read this code in the system and they run off a report by an agreed date. The Disability Office and the student need to have signed off on the supports by that date. This allows the Examinations Office to begin thinking about the resources (buildings, staff etc) that will be needed. Note that the Disability Office does not provide or organise resources for the examinations; this is squarely the remit of the Examinations Office. After all, the Examinations Office are best-placed to ensure the integrity of the examinations.
  • If computer equipment is needed, the Computer Centre makes arrangements for this. They configure, test and support candidates using standard equipment and software throughout the examinations. If a candidate needs assistive technology such as JAWS or ZoomText, the Disability Office works with the Computer Centre to ensure that this is available and functioning on the exam setup. The Disability Office are on call when assistive technology is being used.

All of this is achieved through early and open conversation. Now in our third year, I’m pleased to report that we have had no ‘crisis calls’ on the BatPhone (so far) this January. The system is working.

Our next step is to see if we can replace human readers and scribes with technology. But that’s a whole other post…

And let’s not get started on promoting alternative forms of assessment (yet).

Ira Socol’s 2009: The Year of Universal Access

We could do away with 90% of “special needs” today, and instead make all those tools and resources available to every child to use every time “this way” would make education work better than “the old way.” Stigmas would drop away, as would the self-limits of low-expectations. Student interests would create groupings rather than measurements of single abilities.

…we don’t call those wearing eyeglasses “special needs.” […] we let just about anyone take elevators in tall buildings – not just those who have documentation proving that they can not climb stairs. Students need to be shown the tools available, and they should be helped in learning how to pick the best tool for their specific situation.

Ira has a fantastic couple of posts over at SpeEdChange at the moment on Universal Access {part 1 and part 2}. 

In the Disability Office here, our mantra is that we are trying to make ourselves redundant by making the university environment inclusive to all from the outset, effectively making the category of ‘special needs’ redundant.

Ira explains it far better than I could, so the posts are very much worth your time if you are involved at any level in the delivery or consumption of content in education. Staff at NUIM might like to take a look at some of the resources in our staff area or have a look through our links in delicious.


September and October are the busiest times for those of us in Disability services in higher education establishments, and these months have been B.U.S.Y.

This is a very positive thing of course and the intake of students is wonderful, getting us ever-closer to the levels we should be at.

On the downside, I’ve got no time to blog about the less-pressing matters!

Normal service shall be restored as soon as all these needs assessments, form-filling, box-ticking, rationale creating, everything in triplicate stuff is done with.

But maybe then I’ll want a holiday!

PS: The winner of the name our new home competition was Ann O’Brien, my boss, whose suggestion ‘MAP Lodge’ emerged victorious from an intriguing selection! Thanks to all who made suggestions!

Name our new home!

The NUIM Access Office has a new home next to the Student Services Building, and we need your help to give us a name.

Think of a name for the building that captures the idea of access, inclusiveness, equality, progress or other very positive concepts. Don’t be afraid to be a little out there with your suggestions either (we’re a little out there ourselves after all).

Send your suggestion to me here or to before September 18th 2008 and maybe your creativity will give us a name we can live with (and in)!

Amazing Free Web Things Part 127: Wordle


Originally uploaded by Enda P

Wordle allows you to create a very gorgeous word cloud from pasted text, blogs, feeds or del.ici.ous users’ stuff.

To hail Wordle, and to mark the submission of the H809 ECA, I fed my 4,000 word opus (minus bibliography) into Wordle and this very groovy cloud came out.

Nice (if unsurprising) to see that ‘students’, ‘technology’ and ‘learning’ were the most prominent words.

Now, what’s next….?

How connected are you?

I am the future! Hooray!

The connected academic

Your Result: Connected academic

You are the future! You’ve taken openness, connectedness and 2.0ness to heart. You are an asset to your organisation. I would be happy to be your Facebook friend.

Mildly connected academic
Unconnected academic
The connected academic
Create MySpace Quizzes

An ethical dilemma

A nice lady having a wee think about things

The final push is on to get my research proposal which is my final assignment for H809 in on Friday. But I’m looking for opinions on the ethics bit.

My proposal aims to see what can be learned from examining how students with dyslexia who have assistive technology engage with online learning material.

I’m not so much interested in accessibility as I am in looking closely at how the students work with their technology and whatever else is happening in their learning contexts. I think the findings could be extremely useful in feeding back to course designers and assessors. But I’m particularly interested in this data helping to create a community of practice involving faculty, disability services, computer services, learning technologists and of course the students themselves.

I propose to examine how they work in Moodle as that environment gives us access to all sorts of data from the logs (What did they do? How long did they spend? How much clicking around happened? etc). This is to be followed up with focus groups, semi-structured interviews and student audiologs/blogs/diaries/whatever.

My dilemma is should I tell the students from the outset, or should I let them be and inform them in retrospect? Or a combination?

If I tell them at the outset, I will comply comfortably with standard ethical considerations and we can make sure that they understand what we are trying to learn about them. BUT there is a risk that the students will become self-conscious and tell us what they think we want to hear.

If I tell them afterwards, they will have behaved as normal, but there are two drawbacks:

a) it’s ethically dubious, but not unknown to happen,

b) the students may not give me good quality data. I’m interested in all sorts of things that might be happening in the learning context whatever it may be – are they listening to house music? Are they chatting by IM with friends? Are they zipping back and forth between screens? Are they using traditional learning materials? Are they using mindmaps to represent their notes? All of these things may not be considered important by the learner and they may not record (or even remember) that they engaged with the online content in these rich ways.

Or should I let them do their thing unhindred for a while at the beginning and then midway invite them to actively join the study? So, we could monitor the logs for a few weeks and then identify certain individuals to keep learning logs?

I’m leaning towards option 1, but am interested in fresh perspectives!