The Great Cambridge University Laptop Debate

November 6, 2017 - Daniel Aherne

There is a debate stirring within the walls of Cambridge University. The 800 year old institution, known for its traditional values, is considering embracing the digital era with a new rule regarding use of laptops in exams.

The announcement came in September, following a decline in handwriting skills amongst current students. Some students were asked to come and read their illegible test answers to invigilators. Cambridge University successfully piloted the use of laptops in exams in two departments earlier this year.  The university has since launched a consultation on using laptops in exams as part of its digital education strategy.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckinghamshire says handwriting is “not necessary for great thought, great English, or great intelligence…some of our finest wordsmiths in England today write using laptops.”

Some people are preemptively mourning the lost art of handwriting. Tracey Trussell from the British Institute of Graphologists, claims that writing by hand improves memory, and “equates to a higher rate of comprehension, understanding and information retention,”

Others are pleased with the idea of laptops being used in exams – including those with hidden disabilities such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.

How does this affect students with a hidden disability? Let’s examine the social and medical models of disability to find out more.

According to the social model of disability, disabilities are caused by the way in which society is structured.  If we remove certain barriers, disabled people would not be disadvantaged. Disabled people would be able to access society on an equal footing with non-disabled people.

“if we remove certain barriers disabled people would not be disadvantaged”

The medical model of disability works on the principal that disabled people are something to be fixed using treatment. The medical model focuses on what is ‘wrong’ with the individual rather than looking at adjustments that could be made to their environment.

If we use the social model of disability in the context of exams – Universities could be creating a barrier by making students with a hidden disability hand write their exams, when much of their learning and studying will have involved using a laptop. Some students with hidden disabilities such as dyslexia or dyspraxia may be “disabled” by having to hand write exams. Take away the need to hand write an exam and in that situation a person is no longer at a disadvantage. Is the exam designed to assess their competency at handwriting? If not, this is an unnecessary barrier for students.

“Universities could be creating a barrier by making students with a hidden disability hand write their exams”

Currently many students with hidden disabilities can use laptops in exams as a reasonable adjustment. However the process to get exam adjustments in place can be lengthy and anxiety-inducing. Students using laptops in exams can also face stigma as it marks them out as different. A world that is inclusive would mean that disabled people wouldn’t have to face unnecessary processes,  barriers, ask for different treatment, suffer in silence or be seen as different.

“A world that is inclusive would mean that disabled people wouldn’t have to face unnecessary barriers”

If Cambridge University go ahead with the change, it won’t be long until other institutions follow their lead.  This change would create a learning environment which is reflective of the reality of a workplace. How many jobs now include compulsory handwriting for 3 hours at a time?  The world and workplace has changed as technology has advanced.

At Adjust we believe this move towards institutional inclusive practice could change the lives of many people with a hidden disability and increase opportunities throughout a person’s lifetime.

At Cambridge, the decision on using laptops in exams is now with students, to decide whether they would find the change beneficial. Interestingly the vote is presented in the form of an online (no pen in sight!) survey.  If we were given the choice to allow everyone the use of laptops, we’d be (digitally) ticking the box marked ‘yes.’ Why make things harder than they need to be?

To learn more about hidden disabilities, and the impact of adjustments, consider taking part in one of our training courses.