IN TIMES past, an avatar was a Hindu god in human form, come to Earth to destroy demons and restore the balance of good and evil in the physical world. These days, it is more often a computer graphic with an onscreen identity and a variety of roles in the virtual world. It is this type of avatar whose potential for assessment the Scottish Qualifications Authority is exploring.
On a computer screen in SQA's Glasgow offices, a young woman in a tartan skirt is making precise hand movements in British Sign Language, translating for deaf readers the question that appears beside her on the laptop computer screen.
"People who are born deaf usually learn BSL as their first language," explains Mhairi McAlpine, SQA project manager. "English is a second language. So they're not always confident with the grammar and vocabulary of written English."
Human signers can help exam candidates. But they are often hard to find. Responding in real time to unfamiliar words and questions can be a problem. Then there is the matter of regional dialects: BSL around the country, and particularly north and south of the Border, differs as greatly as spoken English.
"There is a problem with new and emerging technologies too," she says. "Different regions, even different schools, are developing their own signs for a wiki, say, or a blog."
An alternative to live signers is to use videos of them to support candidates in an exam. But videos are inflexible, as well as being expensive to produce and distribute.
Avatars are a third way, one which offers the potential for accuracy, repeatability and flexibility as well as standardisation. "We've been talking with tutors about preparing a set of standard signs for the words used in ICT courses," says Ms McAlpine.
SQA has now produced and tested a prototype support system by working with avatar researchers at the University of East Anglia and signing and programming specialists at the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. The process is time-consuming in the early stages, when standard signs are selected for new words and BSL experts are filmed signing the questions.
The results are then passed to computer programmers at RNID, who are also native signers, to ensure that the programming which can be several pages of XML code catches any small nuances in Anna's hand, face and body movements.
But once the system is set up it can be used, distributed and adapted easily. At the touch of a button, Anna the avatar now translates into BSL each of a set of elementary computing questions, such as "What does GUI stand for?" and "What is the name of the common port used for memory sticks?"
Feedback on the system has been sought from pupils at Dingwall Academy and Donaldson's College for the Deaf, says Ms McAlpine. "We've been getting the children to compare the avatar with a human signer. We asked if the signs and facial movements were clear, and whether the avatar was moving her body correctly.
"We asked how they would feel about using the avatar in the classroom, for formative assessment, in a prelim or even in a live exam. We asked if she's a good enough signer or maybe a bit too robotic. We wondered if they liked her. In general, they said the signing was clear. But they would like it to be easier to see how her lips are moving. So we are working on that."
Avatars for signing is not yet a pilot project at the Scottish Qualifi-cations Authority, says Martyn Ware, business manager for computer assisted assessment. "It is still research. But it's research with some interesting possibilities for using technology to support equality and inclusion. Our aim is to make sure that our qualifications are as accessible as possible for as many people as possible."
* ww.rnid.org.ukhowwehelp research_and_technology communication_and_broadcasting virtual_signing University of East Anglia l www.visicast.sys.uea.ac.uk