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No tutor, no guru, just keys

COMPUTER SKILLS COURSE Published by Computer Skills College, and marketed by Skelmersdale College.

In the European Year of Lifelong Learning, the publication of a course which can be studied without a tutor about information technology using IT must be welcome, even if a MORI poll suggests that less than 30 per cent want to study in this way. Instead the course, provided in two printed workbooks and two floppy discs, includes assessment for the City and Guilds 4242 Basic Competence in Information Technology.

The course is set out in the printed work books with at least two mock tests for each of the four IT "tools": word processor, database, spreadsheet and paint program. Each timed mock practical assignment uses the standard Microsoft software, such as Microsoft Works for Windows (which I used), with a file on the work disc supplied. Similar assignments form each test which, with three multiple choice tests, are returned on disc to Skelmersdale College for marking.

Super idea: use IT to teach IT. The problem is, can the students use IT in this way if they don't have basic competence in it? I read the instructions on installing the Logbook and got confused: where was the disc with the logbook? On a third reading, I noticed the words "Insert your Marking Disc into the disc drive." Reading, like any form of learning, is context- dependent, and my expectations had been to have an object called a logbook.

Similar confusions may occur for others, but perhaps I am pessimistic. Many people are very competent in installing software. Anyway, the helpline is very friendly and helpful, just a pity it is weekdays only.

The course is similar to the Microsoft Works tutorials, but more boring as it is on paper. The exciting bit is being able to get a qualification using the software provided. My son and I attempted the minimal self-assessment questions and a practical test. Our work and time were recorded on the disc. We did come across two errors: one was an incorrect file format, and another the request to move a paragraph that wasn't there. In time these must improve.

More serious is the ease with which we could cheat. To retake a test, we changed the clock in the control panel with ease. We were also able to answer the questions with a group seated around the PC, who could well be more expert than the person who obtains the certificate!

Perhaps Skelmersdale will be able to use all the date-stamping of the practical activities to catch such cheating, but I doubt it.

This is possibly the first wave of a new style of learning. If this style makes more people confident in studying for qualifications, then I think that is great. Given a bit more design focused on security and fun, there could be a big market here. It might enhance lifelong learning this year.

Niki Davis is professor of educational telematics at the University of Exeter

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