Encouraging accessible examinations

Derek Mills, BCS Qualifications

Making sure that an organisation is as inclusive as possible is a difficult task, fraught with complexities and hidden problems. But it can be done, as BCS has demonstrated with its approach to the hugely popular European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) IT user qualification. Derek Mills of the BCS Qualifications team explains.

BCS Qualifications is breaking new ground in not only helping disabled individuals take IT qualifications but in certifying the external agencies that provide assistance. The ECDL qualification has two areas of accessibility that require attention: training materials and tests. Over the last three years, we have built up a wide network of external agencies, which are working with BCS to create greater accessibility in these two areas.

Greater success has been achieved in the area of testing. Test centres have a choice of adopting manual tests or automated tests. The latter eliminates the burden of internal marking by test centre staff. Unfortunately automated tests have created particular problems for candidates with a severe visual impairment and centres have usually directed candidates towards the manual tests.

BCS Qualifications commissioned the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC) from Hereford to produce alternative papers in large print, audio and Braille formats for the manual test questions. These can be ordered online at no additional cost to the test centre.

A number of visually impaired candidates are reliant on using screen reader software. BCS Qualifications is working with the RNC, and a number of providers of these software packages, to address the compatibility of their software with not only the manual tests but also the software for the automated tests. This is a particularly exciting project.

To complement this, BCS Qualifications has conceived a quality mark to accredit the automated test providers that can deliver accessible testing. It is a three-star system based on three criteria: the availability of additional time for the test, an appropriate readability score for the test material and the level of compatibility with a screen reader package.

The response from all the automated test providers has been very positive. One of the four main providers is going through the evaluation process and is close to achieving the maximum three stars. We believe that this quality mark is a unique innovation by an awarding body in the UK.

BCS Qualifications is planning to expand this approach to include a fourth star, which would include a language-modified approach for the deaf and hard of hearing.

This is another sector in which the manual tests offer greater accessibility. BCS Qualifications commissioned a charity for the deaf and hard of hearing to produce a deaf-friendly version of the manual test questions. These are about to be piloted and we expect to make them available by late 2006.

The most recent development has been the introduction of a readability study. BCS Qualifications has commissioned a professional body to evaluate and develop manual tests with improved readability.

The BCS Qualifications Quality Mark is not restricted to the automated test providers. It extends to organisations that provide technical support, publish training materials or improve the accessibility of the manual tests. Awards have already been published in each of the three categories.

As the existing syllabus and test bank come towards the end of their shelf life, plans are already in hand to incorporate our experiences into the development of the next version. Since 2004 the ECDL qualification has evolved into the BCS Level 1 and 2 Certificate for IT User qualifications.

There is an ever-increasing suite of BCS qualifications including ECDL Advanced, e-Citizen, equalskills, BCS ITQ, e-type and ECDL CAD. The accessibility of each of these individual qualifications has been assessed and decisions will be made as to how and when enhancements will take place. As more and more of the IT qualifications rely on automated testing, it is imperative that we continue to work with the automated test providers towards achieving solutions.

While significant strides in improving the accessibility of the tests have been made, training provision still lags behind. This situation is not unique to the BCS qualifications. We are aware that only one of the ECDL training providers has successfully addressed this issue by publishing training materials in large print format.

There is a major gap in training provision, particularly for visually impaired students who use screen reader software. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has produced training materials for several of the ECDL modules.

The RNC will soon be publishing its own training materials. It expects to launch the first set in September 2006. Accessibility is moving in the right direction in the training area too, but the choice is still very limited for disabled learners.

The report Greater Expectations - Provision for Learners with Disabilities by the Adult Learning Inspectorate identifies a scarcity of specialist training and teaching. Tutors are not well-trained or supported in how to develop teaching and learning strategies that encourage meaningful learning.

BCS Qualifications already addresses this matter by running workshops entitled ECDL for the Visually Impaired in partnership with the RNC at their Hereford site. Two further workshops are planned for the autumn and spring with one to cover hearing as well as sight impairment.

BCS Qualifications is committed to social inclusion with regards to its qualifications. It has approached this matter on three fronts: training materials, testing and tutor training. Although it already works in partnership with a large number of agencies, BCS is keen to interact with other IT professionals and organisations with an expertise in disability matters.