When Peter Buckland wanted to help his teaching colleagues gain an ICT qualification, he enlisted the help of the Welsh College of Horticulture.
Eighteen months on, the teachers' confidence has grown dramatically. Having gained a European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), even the most technology-shy staff have blossomed into enthusiastic users of ICT, keen to demonstrate their new-found skills and take the lead in trying out new ideas.
"The benefits are enormous," says Buckland, who is deputy head at Argoed High School in Bryn-y-Baal, Flintshire. "The ECDL has been the key to development here, and I would advise any school to do it."
A qualification recognised in 120 countries, ECDL focuses on the practical application of ICT in the workplace, and first gained popularity in the office world. Now it is finding increasing favour among teaching professionals, with much to recommend it.
In seven modules it covers the key skills required in schools: basic concepts, using the computer and managing files, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentations, and information and communication.
There is enough detail to equip teachers with practical skills, but not so much as to swamp them in distracting technicalities.
At Argoed High School, ECDL was introduced as part of a team-teaching initiative to help staff build confidence in ICT. Peter Buckland says:
"Teachers were aware of the skills we were expecting students to develop, and felt they themselves were lagging behind. I wanted to do something that allowed them to come out with an accredited qualification."
Initially he planned to offer self-study materials for ECDL, but the Welsh College of Horticulture, which runs ECDL courses and acts as a local test centre, advised that face-to-face teaching sessions would yield more success. In January last year, 15 teachers enrolled on a 20-week pilot, with tutors from the college coming in to run a 90-minute after-school session every week. By July, six of the teachers had gained the ECDL. The others continued their studies, joining 13 new recruits on this year's ECDL lessons, which have been running since September.
Jeanette Rock is special educational needs co-ordinator and a member of the senior management team at Argoed, and gained the ECDL last year. She says:
"It has been fantastic for building confidence. I had some knowledge of the applications beforehand, but not enough to lead students through any of the activities. Most of my department has now done ECDL, including one teacher who used to be terrified of computers. She is now helping develop an online record keeping system - the turnaround has been fantastic."
In the UK, the ECDL awarding body is the British Computer Society and ECDL is managed internationally by the ECDL Foundation, which accredits courseware. There are about 20 providers of courseware in this country.
Most aim at the general business market, although teacher-training courses are now making an appearance. In January, training specialists Aston Swann launched ECDL for Educators, designed to help teachers acquire their ECDL skills in a school context. For instance, they learn the finer points of word processing by constructing a lesson plan, and the spreadsheet module demonstrates how to sort and chart SATs results for presentation in a governors' report.
The course is licensed to schools or local education authorities, which choose how to deliver it. Aston Swann's Debbie Skyrne says a complete novice would take around 57 hours to work through all the modules, and could work alone, but she does not recommend a complete programme of self-study. "Almost without exception, teachers prefer face-to-face delivery. The first part of each module could be delivered face to face, then teachers could work on their own, coming back together for a workshop at the end."
Another schools-oriented provider to watch out for is Electric Paper, which bills itself as the leading provider of ECDL courseware and the only courseware provider with its own ECDL testing software. It was recently taken over by Third Force, headed by someone familiar to UK education, Brendan O'Sullivan, former boss of Apple UK.
Electric Paper marketing manager John Kelly welcomed the take-over as a spur for an increased focus on schools: "In addition to enabling students to gain a recognised qualification with marginal incremental effort, we believe ECDL is also the ideal solution for the development of teachers and support staff."
CHOOSING A COURSE.
Tips from Pete Bayley, ECDL Director at the British Computer Society (BCS):
* First look at what is happening in your local authority, and contact two or three local test centres, which usually offer courseware and a range of delivery options.
* Ensure a test centre is accredited and that courseware carries the ECDL Approved Courseware logo (see lists at www.ecdl.co.uk).
* No matter which courseware is used, candidates take standardised tests, which allow skills to be benchmarked across different countries and industries.
* Some schools generate revenue by becoming a test centre, others help a neighbouring school to establish a centre (ECDL is often offered to pupils as well as teachers).
* Electric Paper supplies everything needed to obtain the ECDL at pound;79.99 per learner (teacher or student ) for a minimum of 25. This includes: a BCS logbook, an approved CD-Rom (with 80 hours of interactive materials) and seven approved ECDL tests for each learner; annual licence fee for accredited test centres; annual site licence for AutoTest (automatic ECDL testing software)
* Aston Swann has just launched a research project to investigate how teachers acquire ICT skills. Managed by MirandaNet, the independent research group based at London's Institute of Education, the 12-month project will track the progress of 100 teachers on the ECDL for Educators training programme, monitoring how their perception and use of ICT changes during the course.
* Electric Paper Tel: 00 353 86 606 2525 www.electricpaper.ie
* Aston Swann Computer Technologies Tel: 01432.341344; www.educatorsecdl.coml British Computer Society Tel: 01793 417424 www.ecdl.co.uk
* ECDL Foundation www.ecdl.com