Testing times ahead for ECDL

12 Oct 2002

Some 12pc of the Irish adult population have participated in it. An estimated 200,000 people have passed it. Two million people have registered for it worldwide. What is it? It’s the European Computer Driving Licence, or ECDL — the world’s most successful computer literacy programme.

The driving force behind its success in this country is ECDL Ireland, which was established by the Irish Computer Society (ICS) in April 1997. The organisation, which now has 12 full-time staff, was set up as a charity that would plough back any surplus it made into computer literacy-related initiatives. “Our raison d’être is the promotion of computer literacy in the State,” said Jim Friars, the Canadian-born chief executive of ECDL Ireland.

While the cost to the candidate can vary widely — private training companies may charge over €500 for the course, while community-based groups may offer it for free — ECDL Ireland receives the same registration fee for each candidate — €35. This is its primary revenue source.

The twin early objectives of EDCL Ireland were building up an infrastructure of test centres and creating demand for it. To achieve the latter objective, first key influencers in the corporate sector were identified and lobbied on the benefits of the programme. Then, once big business was on board, ECDL key training organisations such as Fás were approached and told that businesses wanted their employees trained to this standard.

From the beginning, companies such as Guinness, ESB and Telecom Éireann included it as part of their in-house employee training programmes. Once it was firmly established within the cream of Ireland’s industrial firmament, its appeal quickly spread to the general business community.

It is the corporate sector that has driven the ECDL juggernaut in Ireland since its inception. “We been as successful as we have probably because our focus in the early days was to establish ECDL as a corporate benchmark for computer literacy,” noted Friars.

Setting up the test centre network was the other main priority. Each test centre enters into a legal agreement whereby it agrees to comply with the ECDL’s quality standards and its testers are trained by the ECDL on how to implement the programme.

There are now about 1,000 test centres in Ireland. They are found in in-house corporate training departments, public training organisations like Fás, schools and third-level colleges, private training organisations and community-based groups.

The programme has undoubtedly given a huge boost to computer literacy in Ireland but there have been other spin-off benefits. Ireland was an early adopter of ECDL, so a whole industry has coalesced around the programme, driven by a host of indigenous courseware providers. Some of these are private institutions — the Blackrock Education Centre, for example, has developed an ECDL textbook that now sells 15,000 copies in the UK and Ireland every year — but the majority are commercial organisations that have grown dramatically on the back of ECDL.

Many of them are export oriented, targeting countries that have recently joined the programme and are looking to purchase learning material. South Africa, Canada and Australia are some of the countries that are importing courseware from Irish suppliers.

“If you look at it as a business case study it’s phenomenal,” said Friars. “Two million people in the world have enrolled in ECDL and a lot of the courseware has come from Irish providers. The amount of money that’s flowed into Ireland as a result is actually probably quite large — certainly in the millions.”

He added: “[The growth of the industry] shows the value of establishing indigenous business and developing expertise here based on supporting local initiatives.”

Having expanded rapidly over the last five years the number taking up ECDL courses in Ireland is beginning to plateau at around 60,000 new joiners annually. As a result, the organisation has begun to explore new avenues of growth. “It’s not realistic that we’re going to get 100,000 people a year in the programme in a country the size of Ireland so, to survive, we have to introduce new programmes,” said Friars.

These programmes comprise two basic types. The first is a new series of courses called ECDL Advanced, which, as the name suggests, offers higher-level courses in particular modules. Some 125 centres now offer ECDL Advanced courses in spreadsheets; similar courses in databases and presentations are to be introduced in the autumn. A number of specialist programmes are being developed outside of the existing curriculum, including programmes in computer aided design and web development.

The second type is aimed at users on the lowest rung of the competency ladder. Equal Skills is first such programme to be developed. Currently in pilot in six counties in the south west and the Midlands, the programme is intended as a basic introduction to computers and the internet for people with no experience of IT. ECDL Ireland has set itself a target of getting 100,000 people into the programme by the end of the year — it’s currently halfway to its target.

Furthermore, ECDL in conjunction with the ICS is developing a certification programme for the IT professional. Due to be launched in the autumn, this is aimed at providing a formal qualification for testers working in training centres.

Unsurprisingly, the success of ECDL has resulted in a growing number of rival operators coming onto the market offering courses in computer literacy. Friars regards these with undisguised suspicion.

“A standard needs to be objective and needs to be set by some type of independent body,” he said. “If we suddenly see private companies coming in, they are driven by a business strategy whereas our strategy is more about driving computer literacy. It’s dangerous if they succeed.”

But for now, these new entrants haven’t managed to take the gloss off the programme. Ireland is, per capita, believed to be the most successful ECDL location in the world. This is partly due to the business model used to propagate it, but also because “the country was ready for it”, according to Friars.

As someone who was there at the beginning, he has had the pleasure of watching his baby grow into a fully-fledged computer literacy industry. “It’s been great. Anything that works is fun, isn’t it?” he said.