Licence to skill

The European Computer Driving
Licence is going down a storm. But what is its true value? Simon Kent reports

In May 1998 a new IT
qualification was launched in the UK. The European Computer Driving License
(ECDL) had its genesis some three years earlier as a local qualification in

Offering a simple mark of a
user’s skill and knowledge at using IT, the qualification quickly spread
throughout Northern Europe and is now awarded in the UK by the British Computer
Society (BCS). According to Stephanie Malone at the BCS there are now around
1,300 recognised test centres for the licence and some 100,000 candidates
registered as working towards the qualification.

But what is the licence really
worth? Moreover, given the host of other IT-related qualifications – from NVQs
to degrees to Microsoft qualifications – does it really have a legitimate place
in the training roster? “It is the best thing available for a reasonably short
test of basic computer usage,” says Simon Ellis, head of the London Skills
Forecasting Unit. “To that extent I think it’s useful, but it’s probably not
the complete answer to current skill shortages.”

The Forecasting Unit’s annual
surveys of 5,000 companies and 14,000 individuals have found IT skills to be
among the biggest problems for employers in the last few years.

But while the ECDL certainly
addresses user skills, it is not intended to address the more technical skills
in the software and programming areas which are also in demand from employers.

“The IT industry is probably
one of the areas where take up will be lowest,” notes Karen Price, chief
executive of E-Skills National Training Organisation. “It’s more for other
industries where employers might be unsure of exactly how to upskill their

Major attractions

The ECDL can boast two major
attractions. Firstly, it is a user’s qualification. In other words, anyone who
uses a computer in any context is a potential candidate.

Secondly, the qualification is
extremely flexible in delivery and can be adapted to meet the demands of
individual organisations in terms of employee activity, their prior knowledge
and the amount of time they can spare for training activities.

The full ECDL qualification
requires the completion of seven modules (see box). Clearly an individual may
know more about certain areas than others and can therefore take the modules as
and when they are ready, dedicating more training time to those areas where
they are less knowledgeable.

To extend flexibility and
uptake, the BCS has recently introduced the idea of a “start certificate”
whereby a candidate completing four of the seven modules can receive official
recognition of their knowledge. In this way, even employees who do not need
knowledge in every area of the ECDL will still be able to gain some official recognition
of their skills.

Bradford and District Tec
started using the ECDL following a study of its own IT skills requirement.

With a policy of one computer
per desk, it found that training staff towards the qualification meant its
small IT department – three employees serving a workforce of around 90 – could
spend less time dealing with simple user-problems enabling them to gain more
value from the organisation’s IT investment.


“People who have been using
their computer for three or four years have taken the course and found new and
more efficient ways of doing their work,” says Geoff Rose, the Tec’s IT

“If a company doesn’t have its
own support staff and is reliant on an outside supplier, training staff through
the ECDL could have a bigger impact – they would no longer have to pay for that

The TEC has its own dedicated
IT trainer and has attained test centre status, enabling it to offer training
to other organisations including the local council and the YMCA. This training is
one activity it hopes to continue in some form following the closure of the
Tecs in March.

“The qualification has
certainly worked for us,” says Jules O’dor, innovation manager. “We’ve seen
benefits in skill levels and in people’s confidence with IT. Employees have
taken on tasks they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing before – there’s even been a
competitive spirit amongst employees about who’s passed what and with what

The ECDL has won favour in
other areas of commerce. Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical company, now has
upwards of 200 employees studying for the qualification delivered through the
company’s Flexible Learning Centre in Kent.

Meanwhile, 58 undergraduates
from the dental school at the University of Wales College of Medicine completed
the ECDL at the end of last year.

Developing skills

Clearly the qualification
offers organisations an effective way of developing the basic IT user skills
its employees need, but will it become a qualification employers look for?

Theo Lynn, managing director of
Educational Multimedia Corporation, a training supplier, believes in time the
qualification will gain a greater foothold within the formal education system.

“In five years’ time the ECDL
will be driven into schools, perhaps at the GCSE level,” he says.

“At the moment the main need is
to reskill the workforce and if corporations meet that challenge the standard
required for IT skills will naturally rise.”

However, if the qualification
is to achieve that status and to retain the popularity it has enjoyed over the
past 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 Simon
Ellis is not alone in highlighting the importance of keeping the standard on
track with the rest of the IT world.

“There is no doubt it will need
to be updated as new technology comes along,” he says, “but broadly speaking it
is the best practical test out there.”


The ECDL is principally based
around Microsoft applications and consists of seven modules:

  1. Basic concepts of IT
  2. Using the computer and managing files
  3. Word processing
  4. Spreadsheets
  5. Database
  6. Presentation
  7. Information and communication

The cost of training varies
according to training provider and method of delivery – classroom, on-line, or
CBT. An intensive course from zero knowledge can take up to 10 days. On average
the full course costs £700. The BCS has set a guide-line charge of examinations
at £20 per module. Each candidate is also obliged to buy a logbook to record
their progress which currently has a fixed cost of £25.

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