Each year we are seeing more and more pupils using technology to help them access their exams. In particular the use of word processing and text to speech (or computer readers as they are referred to by exam boards) have become increasingly popular. Pupils report that using these tools makes them feel more independent and confident in their exams.
Last year Crick launched DocsPlus. Building upon their popular Clicker application for primary schools, it combines the tools to help with planning, creating and polishing text in one standalone application. Pupils can plan their writing in the WorkSpace, creating mind maps or just capturing topics and notes. From here, they can create Wordbars or send their ideas directly to a new document to start writing in a simple and clear word processor. As with all Crick’s products it offers a range of tools to help pupils who need additional support, including text to speech, Wordbars and a talking spell checker. DocsPlus’ accessibility settings cater for a variety of access needs (for example switch access, eye gaze or on-screen keyboard) while the display preferences enable you to choose font and background colours, as well as select pre-configured high contrast modes.
Figure 1: Accessibility display setting in DocsPlus and text in High Contrast - Blue on Yellow.
One other new feature is the DocReader, which allows pupils to open a Word or PDF file into a separate window inside DocsPlus. As the DocReader also includes access to the built-in text to speech tools, it can also be used to read aloud test and exam papers. This makes it suitable for supporting pupils who qualify for a computer reader access arrangement at GCSE and high-stakes exams. So, I was keen to see how DocsPlus could be used under exam conditions for those using technology-based access arrangements.
One of the challenges schools face at exam time is ensuring that all the computers are set up appropriately so that pupils cannot access certain tools, such as spell checkers and dictionaries, during the exam. Using DocsPlus’ password-protected Exam Mode, teachers can set which tools are available to pupils when Exam Mode is activated.
Figure 2: Exam Mode options in DocsPlus.
When pupils open a PDF exam paper in DocsPlus, they can see and hear the exam questions in the same application as they write their answer. In the split window view, these files are displayed alongside the writing area. This makes the whole experience simple for pupils, as there is no need to switch between applications for reading the question and writing the answer. If the exam paper includes editable textboxes in the answer areas, as is the case with Scottish digital papers, answers can be typed directly onto the exam paper.
Figure 3: SQA Digital paper opened in DocsPlus. Red highlight indicates boxes that can be edited. Answer boxes use the same display settings as word processor window.
One aspect I like about DocsPlus is that it can be used for many classroom activities. This will make it easier for pupils to become familiar with it, as all too often pupils with special educational needs are required to use different or extra tools. The interface, while feeling appropriate for young-adults and secondary-aged pupils, remains simple, reducing the distractions that often come with using technology. Crick have also used their many years of experience of working with schools to provide options that make it easy to personalise the program to suit each pupils’ needs. The “Export User Options” is particularly handy at exam time to ensure that pupils settings can be moved quickly between computers.
This is still early days for DocsPlus and there are still a few areas that could be improved. For example, some would appreciate having the display settings applied to the whole DocReader window, and to be able to alter the background colour of PDFs. I also found myself looking for a way to show the DocReader alongside the writing area (instead of below), as even on a large monitor it was difficult to see enough of the exam paper without scrolling.
Overall, DocsPlus comes across as a package that will work well in the classroom, in exams or at home. I hope that this useful addition to the range of tools that can be used as a computer reader in exams will encourage more schools to look at technology-based access arrangements which can enable their pupils to demonstrate their skills independently.