Training providers and exam boards have woken up to Net gains to be made, reports Les Watson
Imagine letting drivers loose on Europe's roads without first taking lessons or passing a test. The result would be chaos. The lack of a computer driving licence may not cause serious injury but it does mean many computer userswaste time trying tofathom out how their PC works.
Enter the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), a development that highlights the need for training in information and communications technology (ICT).
There has always been a clear need for ICTtraining and occasionally, in the education sector at least, it has been funded. But asthe "web lifestyle", as Bill Gates calls it, takes hold, ICT training for the Government's "nation of lifelong learners" is less an option than a necessity. As well as the ECDL, the New Opportunities Lottery Fund for ICT training for teachers and school librarians also attempts to support the use of ICT in the classroom, boost competence and confidence in using computers and raise the profile of ICT skills.
There is a massive training job to do in schools, the community and business. But achieving this task is only possible if computers can be used to provide on-line self-study courses and automated computer-based assessment. Many companies produce support materials for the ECDL, from budget-priced, paper-based materials to fully interactive courseware that can run on a school's server and is available to staff at all times (see box). This allows users to learn when it suits them, but also means they can dip into the software to clarify a point at any time during their working or studying day.
Easy access to training materials is the real benefit ofon-line, interactive training. Since we forget about 60 per cent of information covered in a training course, permanent access to materials reinforces learning and provides long-term support. Courseware support through a networked computer system - possible with packages such as WIT from M2 - is another cost-effective solution. Automated computer assessment also has the potential to reduce training costs.
The ECDL qualification is a newcomer compared to the Computer Literacy and Information Technology (CLAIT) qualification of Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR). The exam board's latest move is to make computer-based assessment possible by September 1999 and recognises the time taken to assess candidates for practical computer-related qualifications. Spurred on by a successful pilot scheme undertaken in some of its centres, OCR will initially focus on word processing qualifications.
The exam board's on-line assessment uses secure extranet technology (based in Coventry) to link individual centres and OCR's examiners and moderators with artificial intelligence systems, which provide computerised assessment of their qualifications. The benefits are a faster turnaround of results, increased reliability and, with the burden of assessment removed from centres, a massive reduction in administrative time and input for teachers.
Completed tests are submitted to OCR as data files via a secure Internet connection, which uses password access and encryption to ensure files remain confidential and cannot be tampered with. Artificial intelligence is used to mark the test. Following a standardisation process and final marking, OCR returns each test report and results directly to the test centre using thesecure on-line facilities.
"This is potentially a far more efficient, rapidand reliable process than the traditional paper-based system, which involvessending scripts in the post and more administration at both ends," says Patrick Craven, OCR's professional officer for own-brand development.
CLAIT and other on-line assessment courses will provide a model to transform the way competence-based qualifications are marked. "In effect, we are providing a model for computer-based assessment of any competence-based qualification," Craven explains. The potential of on-line assessment is also being explored by the British Computer Society for the ECDL in the UK. The Swedes seem to be in the lead with a web-based on-line assessment tool provided by the Swedish Computer Society (www.svenskatest.setestningteststationeng_Read.html for an overview in Swedish).
There's something unsettling about the idea of computers taking over course delivery and assessment of IT skills - but it may be the only way to equip learners with the driving licences needed to get the best from new technology.
* WHERE CAN I MAKE THAT CALL?
Centres wishing to participate in the national pilot of OCR online assessment from September 1999 can contact OCR on 01203 470033.
NETg International HQ (ECDL material suppliers) 0181 994 4404. http:wwwnetg.com
Cheltenham Computer Training 01242 227200. http:www.cctglobal.com
Electric Paper UK Freephone: 0800 626328. http:www.electricpaper.ie
The CourseWare Company http:www.course.co.uk NCC Education Services (automated testing) 0161-438-6200. http:www.ncceducation.co.uk
RM plc 01235 826000 http:www.rm.com
M25 (UK) Ltd (training) 0171 288 6825 http:www.m25.com