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Hong Kong special needs students to use speech-to-text software for first time in liberal studies exam

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For the first time, about 150 students with special needs will be allowed to use speech-to-text software in the Diploma of Secondary Education liberal studies examination this year.

Speaking at a media lunch on Wednesday, Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority general manager Margaret Hui Yuen-ching said that for the exam in early April, students with severe writing difficulties could – instead of writing their answers – answer questions by speaking to a MacBook Air using a speech recognition program developed by IT giant Apple.

Tong Chong-sze, the authority’s secretary general, said that going forward, the authority could extend the plan to other subjects such as history, but ruled out implementing the program for languages.

“For languages, we have to test their writing abilities. If students use the speech-to-text software, it shows that they can speak, but not write,” director for public examinations Christina Lee said.

But she said students were tested for their thinking and discussion abilities in liberal studies, so it was fine if they did not write.

The director added the subject was chosen for the scheme as it was a compulsory subject, unlike history and Chinese history, which might not be an elective chosen by students with special learning difficulties.

“We have to look at the subject’s objectives. As long as it does not affect the assessment criteria, we could consider it if we find it suitable, but we have to do it for the first time [for liberal studies] and assess whether it is ideal and can help the students,” Tong said.

Margaret Hui (left), Christina Lee and Tong Chong-sze extol the virtues of new technology. Photo: Edward Wong

Hui revealed that while around 220 people had been given the go-ahead to use the program, only around 150 would use the software as some did not find it suitable or could not get used to the program.

She explained that there were still some challenges associated with the program.

For example, in a demonstration given to reporters, the user had problems keying in a Cantonese term meaning “suffer”as it sounded similar to the term for “fantasise”.

The software would also be able to work in English, but Hui noted that only a handful of special needs students would take the liberal studies paper in that language.

She also urged students needing to use the software to start practising early so they could get used to answering the paper with it. The Education Bureau will provide a laptop for those taking the paper through the speech recognition program.

Lee added that students had to be assessed by experts to qualify to use the software.

Lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said most parents with children with such needs he spoke to were grateful for the new arrangement as it was something they had long been pushing for.

The overall number of special needs candidates rose by about 15 per cent to around 2,400. Lee noted it was because of increased support in society for such students.

The authority also revealed that the number of candidates taking the diploma would drop about 9.5 per cent to 61,669 this year.

Tong said the authority could increase exam fees next year with the student population likely to continue falling and because the organisation had made a loss for several years.

The subject fee for languages and other subjects went up by HK$17 and HK$12 respectively to HK$595 and HK$398 this year.

The total examination fee for a typical school candidate taking six subjects, including two language and four non-language subjects, is HK$2,782 this year.

Lawmaker Cheung said he was concerned about the fees being a burden for families who were not too well-off but could not qualify for financial aid.



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: technology to aid special needs pupils in exams

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