(ICDL): International Digital Literacy Takes Hold

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You ask your neighbor in the cubicle next to you for the 10th time how to add the columns on your spreadsheet. She looks at you as if you have 10 heads, although she secretly feels your pain. You have now become a statistic. According to a major study done by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, office workers spend an average of nearly three hours per week, totaling 140 hours a year, attempting to solve computer-related problems. For an employee making the average U.S. wage of $16.23 per hour, this equates to $2,207 annually in lost productivity. Multiply that by the number of uneducated computer users, and the lost productivity numbers are staggering.

The lack of basic computer skills all over the world is causing companies in more than 100 countries to turn to the International Computer Driving License for help. Known as the European Computer Driving License (ECDL) in Europe, ICDL is taking hold in the United States, spearheaded by organizations focusing on providing skilled workers through academia and workforce entities. They are part of the growing initiative to use the ICDL as a tool for validating computer skills. The ICDL is a broad-based computer certification program covering seven comprehensive modules: basic concepts of IT; using a computer and managing files; word processing; spreadsheets; databases; presentations; and information and communication. But make no mistake, this certification is not only for the IT professional—it is for anyone who uses computers day-to-day, whether at home, work or school. As a testament to its broad base, more than 10 million ICDL/ECDL tests have been delivered around the world.

The seven tests leading to ICDL certification are Web-based and are delivered in authorized testing centers (ATCs) by certified proctors. Many CompUSA locations as well as numerous colleges and private institutions are ATCs. The ICDL tests are considered “high-stakes,” meaning there are strict rules surrounding test delivery similar to other high-stakes tests, such as those delivered by Microsoft. The ICDL tests are also considered vendor-independent. Although the tests show Microsoft applications, the skills measured in the tests are constant between similar windows-based applications. Six of the seven ICDL tests are performance-based, which means they contain actual simulations of software, forcing the candidate to apply the needed skills, not just memorize facts. The Basic Concepts of IT test is theory-based, verifying that an individual understands “how a computer works” in addition to understanding “how to work a computer.”

Once an individual registers with ICDL, he is sent a wallet-sized candidate card, complete with his name and candidate number. When the individual completes the ICDL, he receives a Certificate of Completion and wallet-sized card—also known as his “Driving License,” indicating he has completed the certification. He is now free to answer his neighbor in the next cubicle’s questions on how to add columns in a spreadsheet, perform a mail merge or the definition of a query. Individuals who pass all seven ICDL tests within a two-year period are awarded a laminated card known as a “Driving License.”

Although the facts surrounding ICDL are impressive, it’s helpful to hear customer testimonials. Organizations such as the Greater Philadelphia Computer Skills Collaborative (GPCSC) in Philadelphia, Pa., the Bay Area Information Technology Consortium (Bay ITC) in California, Alleghany Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Video Professor are just a few groups that have joined the ICDL bandwagon to better educate their workers, customers and students on computer basics.

The GPCSC began in May 2003, spearheaded by the Mayor’s Commission on Technology (MCOT), IBM, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Universal Companies, marking the first major U.S. city to adopt the world’s largest computer certification program. IBM has been preparing the city for a digital economy by working to improve IT skills for several years. Diane Melley, global manager of IBM’s Reinventing Education program, felt ICDL would be useful in Philadelphia after observing the impact it had in Europe, thus sparking the creation of the GPCSC.

“ICDL has worked well in Europe. I thought it would work equally well here, helping workers and businesses to become more productive and efficient,” said Melley.

Nineteen organizations, schools and institutions currently form the GPCSC in a pilot program testing ICDL’s usefulness. “Computer skills are essential for success in today’s business environment. By offering the ICDL certification in Philadelphia, we are giving our workforce a tool they can use to get ahead,” said Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, creator of MCOT. Philly participants have been enthusiastic, buoyed by their improved job prospects, including The Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp. (PWDC). PWDC has been the leader in achieving certifications, commenting that the people and organizations it serves were happy to complete the ICDL certification and felt a sense of gratification. The GPCSC demonstrates how a unique collaboration between the IT industry, including companies like IBM, and government, nonprofits and colleges can come together to educate the workforce within a city like Philadelphia.

Moving further west in Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, you’ll find the Alleghany Intermediate Unit (AIU). The AIU is an educational service agency supporting 110,000 students in kindergarten through high school in 42 school districts. A year-long pilot with ICDL convinced AIU to offer Alleghany County and intermediate units across the state the ICDL program. The Elizabeth Forward School District and Career Link, a workforce development group, are just two members of the AIU team currently testing.

Joseph Schwoebel, director of technology for AIU, said, “We’re now able to address critical computer-skill shortfalls with ICDL. We can better prepare our students with the skills needed to meet the rigorous demands of college-level studies or to enter the workforce ready to be productive.”

AIU believes the potential of ICDL in Pennsylvania is huge and started another large-scale pilot program with the Three Rivers Work Force Investment Board to further testing. AIU has even applied this belief to its own organization, making ICDL a requirement of employment. AIU tests employees on a regular basis and presents its candidates with ICDL certificates and cards upon completion of the seven modules in a graduation ceremony.

In California, the Bay ITC is doing its part to end computer illiteracy by adopting ICDL. The Bay ITC collaborative effort among 26 Bay Area community colleges and high-tech businesses is dedicated to educational innovation and IT reform. With the unemployment rate in California at an all-time high, California leaders, supported by success stories like Castlebar, Ireland, believe adopting ICDL will enable workers to get back on their feet and back into the job market. Castlebar, a rural town with few job opportunities, embarked on a large-scale program to improve computer literacy among its citizens. ICDL increased the town’s skill base and foreign investment, and the town developed a corporate call center. The Bay ITC is looking for the same kinds of results in California.

Sunne McPeak, executive director of the Bay Area Council, said, “We can spend all we want on improving technology and infrastructure, but the key is having workers who know how to quickly take advantage of these tools.”

By involving a large network of community colleges, California will be able to educate large numbers of people with the basic computer skills necessary to work in today’s technology-driven society.

Video Professor, a household brand in computer tutorials, has added its name to the list of ICDL supporters. An already established name in

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