Are digital exams – just an accessibility requirement?

digieaderLast week JISC published a blog on the provision of digital exam papers for print-impaired learners. It states “Between 10-13% of people in the UK have a print impairment which means they have difficulty accessing text-based resources, varying from dyslexia through to visual impairments and motor difficulties.“[1]. Of course this doesn’t just apply to exam papers, so how can we use technology to assist and is there a more general benefit to the provision of digital resources?

Text to speech (TTS) software  uses digital voices to read the text to the listener. The research cited in the blog post showed that those using text to speech software re -read the text more often than those who had human readers to read for them. Perhaps because students felt less able to ask for a person to read as often as they would have liked to have re-read the text.

TTS software is built into both Microsoft Windows and  Mac OSX operating systems. Its counterpart, speech to text (voice recognition software) is also now built in to desktops and mobile devices with apps for Android available. Clearly these products are aimed at the mass market. What, if any, are the benefits of text to speech and speech to text for general use?

Speech to text

Voice recognition software is useful not just for those suffering from RSI, dyslexics or visually impaired people. Nor is it just a cute toy or hands free method to command your mobile device; it is a great tool for dictating text at speed. The basic dictation software built into your operating system will give you basic dictation, though it has a limited amount of memory and thus can retain a limited number of spoken words. A more sophisticated voice recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking (DNS) can do more. It can provide proofing tools, and the equivalent of word processing macros, for example I have found a useful trick is to create a DNS macro to insert my contact information,  date or other frequently entered text. Unlike a word processor, the application works across a wide range of applications such as email clients, word processing applications, even spreadsheets. Nowadays, it really is easy to set up and train DNS and  to add personalised vocabulary. It, for me at least, has been a great productivity boon, the downside is cost and noise whilst working compared to typing. I would argue that this is a technology which would benefit a wide range of people.

The merits of digital resources, have been much discussed in academia.   I am going to start up front by saying whilst I enjoy (slow) reading a physical book, I see many benefits for digitalising printed materials.

Reading Speed

Text to speech can provide a quicker way to take in information, as the speed at which the text is read is adjustable. We can take in far more information by listening  than  our average reading speed of 250 wpm would allow. We speak (and thus hear) more  quickly than we read and write (the fastest typist types at 216 wpm [2]).

Most readers subvocalise, reading the words aloud in their head (without being conscious of doing so). Subvocalistion slows us down and it is difficult to speed up the rate at which we our subvocalise. It is reckoned the fastest we can read with subvocalisation is about 400 wpm [3]. Ideally, to read quicker and retain information we need to break subvocalisation habit altogether, but text to speech, allows us to read quicker than we could otherwise. Many people find that speech and text combined is very effective way to take in and process information. This trend has been capitalised by Amazon’s Whispernet service, which uses recordings of human readers (it also allows the consumer to adjust the speed).

Print Size

Digitising printed materials, allows the reader to adjust the print size, and, depending on format chosen, may also allow the reader to determine layout, font and background colour. Layout is important to reading quicker as each individual will already have or develop an optimal saccade (a rapid eye movement covering a particular width) which allows the reader to take in more than one word at a time. This is important when trying to increase reading speed and still retain comprehension.

Similarly for  many  dyslexics (and other people with a  print impairment)  background colour and font type is very important. Those who suffer from visual distress are likely to have a preferred background colour which improves readability considerably. In nearly all cases white is the least good colour, but of course it is most widely used in both printed and digital resources.

Search ability

With the growth of search engine capabilities on the desktop it is now possible to search for key words, phrases or even file types on all modern operating systems. Knowing how to find and access materials is key to recalling, referencing and using knowledge unless you are blessed with super powers or an encyclopaedic memory. Of course this is true of any indexing and referencing system printed or digital, however, digital searches are typically quicker, deeper and across a wider knowledge domain.

Storage and access

Digital resources take up less physical space than printed materials, they can provide (but do not require) more granular access controls applied to them and can be made available simultaneously in multiple locations, making knowledge more available across the globe.

In summary, I urge us as an institution to consider carefully how we produce and publish written (and other  forms of) information and to do so in a way which best supports learning and our digital strategy [4]. The more flexibility the reader has for accessing and presenting  the text, the better it is for all of us, not just those who have a disability.



[3]Become a Superlearner,  Jonathon Levi, Lev and Anna Goldentouch Kindle Book

also see


Posted in Concepts, Information Processing, tools, Visual Distraction, Visual Distress/Sensitivity, Visual Processing | Leave a comment

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