The European Computer DrivingLicence is going down a storm. But what is its true value? Simon Kent reportsIn May 1998 a new ITqualification was launched in the UK. The European Computer Driving License(ECDL) had its genesis some three years earlier as a local qualification inSweden. Offering a simple mark of auser’s skill and knowledge at using IT, the qualification quickly spreadthroughout Northern Europe and is now awarded in the UK by the British ComputerSociety (BCS). According to Stephanie Malone at the BCS there are now around1,300 recognised test centres for the licence and some 100,000 candidatesregistered as working towards the qualification.But what is the licence reallyworth? Moreover, given the host of other IT-related qualifications – from NVQsto degrees to Microsoft qualifications – does it really have a legitimate placein the training roster? “It is the best thing available for a reasonably shorttest of basic computer usage,” says Simon Ellis, head of the London SkillsForecasting Unit. “To that extent I think it’s useful, but it’s probably notthe complete answer to current skill shortages.”The Forecasting Unit’s annualsurveys of 5,000 companies and 14,000 individuals have found IT skills to beamong the biggest problems for employers in the last few years. But while the ECDL certainlyaddresses user skills, it is not intended to address the more technical skillsin the software and programming areas which are also in demand from employers. “The IT industry is probablyone of the areas where take up will be lowest,” notes Karen Price, chiefexecutive of E-Skills National Training Organisation. “It’s more for otherindustries where employers might be unsure of exactly how to upskill theirworkers.”Major attractionsThe ECDL can boast two majorattractions. Firstly, it is a user’s qualification. In other words, anyone whouses a computer in any context is a potential candidate. Secondly, the qualification isextremely flexible in delivery and can be adapted to meet the demands ofindividual organisations in terms of employee activity, their prior knowledgeand the amount of time they can spare for training activities.The full ECDL qualificationrequires the completion of seven modules (see box). Clearly an individual mayknow more about certain areas than others and can therefore take the modules asand when they are ready, dedicating more training time to those areas wherethey are less knowledgeable. To extend flexibility anduptake, the BCS has recently introduced the idea of a “start certificate”whereby a candidate completing four of the seven modules can receive officialrecognition of their knowledge. In this way, even employees who do not needknowledge in every area of the ECDL will still be able to gain some official recognitionof their skills.Bradford and District Tecstarted using the ECDL following a study of its own IT skills requirement. With a policy of one computerper desk, it found that training staff towards the qualification meant itssmall IT department – three employees serving a workforce of around 90 – couldspend less time dealing with simple user-problems enabling them to gain morevalue from the organisation’s IT investment.Efficiency“People who have been usingtheir computer for three or four years have taken the course and found new andmore efficient ways of doing their work,” says Geoff Rose, the Tec’s ITmanager. “If a company doesn’t have itsown support staff and is reliant on an outside supplier, training staff throughthe ECDL could have a bigger impact – they would no longer have to pay for thatsupport.”The TEC has its own dedicatedIT trainer and has attained test centre status, enabling it to offer trainingto other organisations including the local council and the YMCA. This training isone activity it hopes to continue in some form following the closure of theTecs in March. “The qualification hascertainly worked for us,” says Jules O’dor, innovation manager. “We’ve seenbenefits in skill levels and in people’s confidence with IT. Employees havetaken on tasks they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing before – there’s even been acompetitive spirit amongst employees about who’s passed what and with whatscore.”The ECDL has won favour inother areas of commerce. Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical company, now hasupwards of 200 employees studying for the qualification delivered through thecompany’s Flexible Learning Centre in Kent. Meanwhile, 58 undergraduatesfrom the dental school at the University of Wales College of Medicine completedthe ECDL at the end of last year. Developing skillsClearly the qualificationoffers organisations an effective way of developing the basic IT user skillsits employees need, but will it become a qualification employers look for?Theo Lynn, managing director ofEducational Multimedia Corporation, a training supplier, believes in time thequalification will gain a greater foothold within the formal education system. “In five years’ time the ECDLwill be driven into schools, perhaps at the GCSE level,” he says. “At the moment the main need isto reskill the workforce and if corporations meet that challenge the standardrequired for IT skills will naturally rise.”However, if the qualificationis to achieve that status and to retain the popularity it has enjoyed over thepast two years, it must be seen to keep pace with the technology itself. According to Stephanie Malone,the syllabus has already undergone one upgrade since its inception and SimonEllis is not alone in highlighting the importance of keeping the standard ontrack with the rest of the IT world. “There is no doubt it will needto be updated as new technology comes along,” he says, “but broadly speaking itis the best practical test out there.”SevenstepsThe ECDL is principally basedaround Microsoft applications and consists of seven modules:Basic concepts of ITUsing the computer and managing filesWord processingSpreadsheetsDatabasePresentationInformation and communicationThe cost of training variesaccording to training provider and method of delivery – classroom, on-line, orCBT. An intensive course from zero knowledge can take up to 10 days. On averagethe full course costs £700. The BCS has set a guide-line charge of examinationsat £20 per module. Each candidate is also obliged to buy a logbook to recordtheir progress which currently has a fixed cost of £25. 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