Scotland is the first part of the UK to offer digital papers to exam candidates, as an alternative to scribes and readers for pupils requiring support.
With the exam season fully underway this week, 209 pupils in 48 schools will use the adapted question papers to sit 509 examinations over the course of the next few weeks. This follows successful trials of adapted digital papers in 2006 and 2007 by the Scottish Qualifications Authority and CALL Scotland (the Communication, Access, Literacy and Learning team at Moray House School of Education).
Paul Nisbet, senior research fellow at CALL Scotland, who helped develop the technology, said one of his intentions was to reduce the over-reliance on readers and scribes in examinations. In 2006, there were 16,815 requests for the use of readers and 15,059 requests for scribes. "In some respects, the widespread use of readers and scribes could be regarded as a success, because pupils who would otherwise struggle to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding can now do so, but it does also raise a number of concerns," he said.
"A Curriculum for Excellence aspires to develop pupils as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society. Have you developed into a successful learner if you can't read your exam papers yourself? How confident are you when you rely on a member of staff to read the exam questions and write down your answers? Are we developing responsible citizens by reading and scribing for them? Can you be an effective contributor if you can't write independently?"
The new digital system aims to make pupils more independent. Candidates can type their answers, click on the text and have it read out by the computer.
Trials showed that most candidates who used the digital papers preferred them to readers or scribes, while staff felt that the pupils were more independent and demands on staffing and accommodation were lower.
One teacher involved in the pilot commented: "All our S3s and S4s sat the Standard grade English examination at the same time. If we had had to provide readers andor scribes, we would not have been able to staff it."
Another said: "Digital papers are empowering, less difficult to administer and cost-effective."
In one school last year, five pupils used digital Standard grade English papers instead of readerscribes. With readerscribes, the school would have had to find five separate rooms, five readerscribes and five invigilators. With the digital papers, they needed only one room (with the pupils using headphones to listen to the papers), one member of staff to supervise, and one invigilator.
CALL Scotland estimates that over pound;1 million was spent on reading and scribing for pupils in exams last year.
Mr Nisbet said: "I am not suggesting that every pupil who has difficulty reading or writing should use an adapted digital paper on computer - they suit some subjects better than others and the time constraints and pressures of the examination situation meant that some candidates will always need human support.
"But the trials have shown that many pupils prefer the digital option, and that it can reduce staffing and costs."
One pupil said: "It's easier to read than a paper copy. It's easier for me to describe my answers directly rather than to use a scribe."
Another added: "Typing into the paper is much easier than writing. Prolonged writing is difficult and causes a lot of pain."
Mr Nisbet said one "really exciting" side-effect had been that some schools have now started to create accessible digital versions of prelims, worksheets, workbooks and textbooks.
"I believe this has huge potential," he said. "If pupils can access learning resources independently in school and at home, rather than only when a reader is available, then we should see considerable improvement in attainment and also in engagement with education."
CALL Scotland adapted digital papers: www.AdaptedDigitalExams.org.uk.