Tag Archives: education

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.

Blindness & Responsibility

I was reading the healthcare supplement in today’s Guardian which was about looking after one’s eyes when I came across some articles about the impact of blindness/visual impairment on employment prospects. Apparently two thirds of people with severe visual impairments are unemployed and the same number again have no formal qualifications, and this is in a country (the UK) with quite robust disability legislation. I must admit I was a little shocked at those figures. Why should I be shocked? Well, I work as Assistive Technology Advisor in NUI Maynooth, one of seven Irish universities and one that is rapidly establishing a reputation for excellence in accommodating learners with disabilities. On Tuesday, I was in UCC, my alma mater, to attend a meeting of people in the sector involved in the production and distribution of material in alternative formats. 

Alternative format (AF), as you may know, involves ensuring that text is easily available and accessible to those who have difficulty with printed material. AF may include Braille, audio or PDF, but the consensus is that material in simple text or HTML gives users the most flexibility.

At the meeting were representatives from various Irish universities, many of whom gave presentations on the work they do to help ensure that the ‘print disabled’ have access to core and other texts. It was a fascinating morning and I was struck (and heartened) by the passion shown by these people in the various ways they chose to facilitate learners in their academic pursuits.Image of student with visual impairment on flim set at NUI Maynooth

At NUIM, we have only had one student who was blind (so far). we currently have three students with visual impairments but the bulk of students registered with the Disability Office are those with dyslexia, who also benefit hugely from having easy access to material in accessible digital format. From September we will text-to-speech software available on all PCs across campus, which will greatly benefit many students with milder forms of dyslexia. This, along with the increasing use of Moodle by faculty and moves to encourage good practice in the creation of digital documents, is helping to make the environment at the university conducive to many with print disabilities. But not all.


Some 66% of blind or partially sighted people of working age are unemployed, and nearly the same number again (67%) have no formal qualifications, according to latest figures.

So, despite all the good work and the availablity of technological solutions, a shockingly high number of people are not getting any formal qualifications in the UK. What’s going wrong?

As people involved in education/technology in education, we need to push the accessibility agenda as much as possible. If a new tool or elearning strategy is being promoted, we need to question its accessibility to all. Last year, a company approached NUIM with an essay writing module that could be added to Moodle. Luckily, the university approached te Disability Office for our opinion on it before they agreed to purchase. It turned out that, while the content was excellent and the interface was pretty, it was Flash-based and caused unnecessary difficulties for learners using screenreaders such as JAWS. We recommended that the company provide a HTML or text-based accessible version or else we could not purchase (interestingly, we cannot by law purchase inaccessible services!). 

There have been situations alas, where institutions have not consulted others about the accessibility of services and gone ahead, putting themselves at legal risk but also excluding the needs of learners. And often needlessly, sometimes all it takes is a little rewrite, a little consideration in formatting, to ensure greater inclusivity. No great sacrifice.

If we are vigilant here, we can encourage good practice in the creation of accessible elearning strategies which benefit all.

And we can get that shocking statistic down to something more reasonable.


Core Activity 7.1: Professional Values


The aim of this activity is to make us consider the importance of a statement of values or code of practice/ethics. Mad doctorFirst we looked at the values held by CMALT and we were to consider any values that we not explicitly mentioned but tat we felt were important. I found this rather difficult, as the four values above are quite all-encompassing. I’m certain that this broadness is on purpose and unavoidable due to the hugely diverse group of people under the CMALT umbrella.


Elearning (not that ALT call it that!) is an emerging (and emergent?) profession and so it is rather difficult to set down stringent standards when the profession is still in development. Let’s look to the traditional professionals once more and see if they do things differently.



Predictably, I looked at medicine and law. The Irish Medical Council have a Guide to Ethical Conduct and Behaviour which has some large general principles (respecting the dignity of the individual) but over one hundred very specific ‘professional responsibilities’ such as how to treat colleagues, what material should be on letterheads and personal use of alcohol and drugs.

The Law Society of Ireland has a comparable Guide to Professional Conduct of Solicitors in Ireland. Again, there are a few overarching principles followed by over one hundred pages of highly specific guidelines.


As I’m the one who seems to keep talking about the cold, hard cash, I find it interesting to see whole sections in both of these documents around payment. The HEA’s guidelines make no mention of it.


I thought it might be interesting to look at the codes of practise (if any) of another emerging and diverse ‘profession’, that of the alternative/complementary practitioner. Like elearning, CAM is made up of people who advocate practices that range from the almost integrated (massage, use of PowerPoint) to the more marginal (angel therapy, use of Second Life). Both groups are trying to establish professional associations and have those associations set standards for their own practitioners. http://www.dohc.ie/publications/pdf/rrpcam.pdf?direct=1 Chap 3.2). The Code of Practice set out by the Society of Homeopathy in the UK is very similar to that by the Irish Medical Council. No doubt this is partially to appear thorough and credible and as such it does a good job (and that’s coming from one who has very little time for the ‘profession’).


My conclusion is that a set of values/code of ethics is essentially a tool to establish credibility. Law and Medicine (In Ireland, at least) have based their codes on both legislative and self-imposed requirements. The statutory involvement is justified given the very direct and powerful relationship these practitioners who often work in isolation have with people. In education, it’s a little different in that practitioners rarely work individually and belong to institutions which are themselves frequently regulated by legislation and have, by extension, credibility. Private institutions on the other hand have to work very hard to earn their reputations.

The elearning professional also will generally work in an institution and his/her work will contribute to the reputation or standards of the collective. Perhaps given CMALT’s promotion of learning technologists as being at the ‘core’ of teaching and learning, a statement of values should simply be the one used by the institution generally? That there will soon be no relevant or significant distinction between a learning technologist and anyone else involved in learning.


Perkin’s Professional Society

Professional society has enormous potential for enhancing human life and ensuring social justice, but it also presents the professional elites with egregious opportunities for exploitation.

In this introductory chapter to Perkin’s The Third Revolution: Professional Elites in the Modern World, the author outlines how he will demonstrate how the modern world belongs to the professional. The professional possesses specialised knowledge based on education, competitive merit and experience in the field. He (more likely than she) dominates society because he controls ‘the scarce resource of expertise in its manifold forms’.

The opening pages appear to belong to one of those unlikely bestsellers with a Big Idea which illustrated by myriad examples of the negative effects of contemporary life often tracing the historical/ideological roots of the malaise. The language of these books (e.g. No Logo, Fast Food Nation) is frequently foreboding, occasionally shrill, but often these stylistic devices can be overlooked as the message and premise appears sound.

In this case, I’m not so sure.

Perkin starts his chapter in a quite dramatic way (capture the reader), but his tone becomes more reasonable and less hyperbolic as the chapter progresses. The results of the Neolithic Revolution, he claims, had brought wealth and power to the few, but a regression for the many. These unfortunates had been yanked from a ‘casual, carefree, improvident life of hunting and gathering in humanity’s Eden’, it seems. Or had they been rescued from short, painful, barbaric existences that offered no opportunity to progress beyond instinctual survival?

Perkin talks about the ‘seductive revolution of the professionals’, how professionals have emerged as the leaders rather than servants in the current order. He looks at seven countries which he says illustrate ten characteristics of professional society. One of these trends is the ‘centrality’ of higher education. The numbers of young people in higher education has doubled or trebled between 1960 and 1988. This, on the surface, would appear to be something worth cheering about.

Far from it, as he argues that a professional society needs to invest heavily in education in order to feed the corporate/service/political machine. In this sense, I question my own motives in enrolling in a module called ‘The eLearning Professional‘. Not only am I angling to ‘command a rent as surely as the landlord or owner of industrial capital’, but I’m involved in facilitating students in becoming the next generation of the privileged. As you can imagine, I feel a little conflicted.

Interestingly, he cannot deny what perhaps those of us idealists involved in education feel; that education is an empowering currency which makes it more difficult for regimes to deceive for very long. He cites the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites as an example of how an educated population would no longer swallow the propaganda being fed to them.So he ends the chapter in an altogether more measured way with the line that opens my thoughts here.

Would I be persuaded of the ambiguity of my pursuit of professionalism were I to read on? I don’t know. I’m unlikely to delve more deeply into it. When I struggled though No Logo and The Long Tail, I tried to make sense of the statistics and economic jargon because I knew who the bad guys were.

With Perkin, I seem to be the bad guy. And things don’t usually end so well for them.