January 13, 2005

A driver's license for free software?

Author: Marco Fioretti

The European Computer Driving License wants to become the world standard certification for computer end-users. What it promises in exchange is more productivity at home and work, an
official, international acknowledgment of one's skills and, consequently, more chances to find a qualified job. While ECDL certification tends to be award to those with Windows skills and experience, it could represent an opportunity for free software supporters.

The ECDL curriculum, called Syllabus, comprises seven modules, covering the most basic concepts of computing and their practical uses on the desktop:

  • Basic concepts of IT
  • Using the computer and managing files
  • Word processing
  • Spreadsheets
  • Database
  • Presentation
  • Information and communication

The modules can be taken all at once or in any order, within three years, in the same or different countries. The foundation maintains a lists of training materials that are compliant with the Syllabus. There is no official requirement to follow any particular training, even if most people who need this kind of certification would probably prefer to attend some class. You just have to pass the tests in an authorized ECDL center.

The initiative, in spite of the name, is not limited to Europe. Training is available in 137 countries and 32 languages and already counts 4 million participants. The program is maintained by the ECDL Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to raise the general level of computer skills.

Certification of ECDL test procedures and training centers is delegated to different local organizations in each country. In the U.K., for example, it is the British Computer Society (BCS); in Italy is the Italian Association for Automatic Calculus (AICA).

One continent, one certification

ECDL is quietly but quickly becoming a household word in Europe. It is the only IT qualification to be endorsed by the EU Member States as a European Award. One of the biggest Irish online recruitment portals reminds job seekers that ECDL is a "pan-European industry standard" which "declares your computer skills, and makes you readily mobile within Irish business and across the [European] Community." In some countries you also get a credit-card-size certificate, "to present at job interviews and to demonstrate your competency in IT."

In England the ECDL was adopted as the reference standard for basic IT skills in 2001. In Italy it already is a requirement for many entry-level jobs in the public sector. Consequently, even a lot of private businesses, including small companies whose boss couldn't tell a PC from a Martian ambassador, want it from all applicants, if only so they need be bothered by fewer applications.

Should we take this seriously?

I am not ECDL-certified, nor I plan to get licensed in the foreseeable future. Many NewsForge readers will probably find the whole concept ridiculous. My initial reaction was similar, and coupled with the feeling that it could be just another occasion to burn public money. But upon further thought, I think the FLOSS community should take it seriously.

Consider that our grandparents can still remember when illiteracy among adults was common, and that, at different times, laws were necessary in many nations to help (or force) parents to send their children to school, instead of to the fields. Today everybody depends, more or less directly, on computers. So I concluded that, in spite of my doubts, this whole ECDL business might actually become a Good Thing after all.

First of all, whether we like it or not, people are going to spend a lot of money on ECDL-related activities. Why should all of it go to proprietary software supporters? Even more important, however, is the fact that this can be an excellent opportunity to spread free software. Remember that, in any given country, 99% of the population doesn't want to know what the Free Software Foundation is or what a kernel is. Those same people, however, might consider ECDL a must to find a better job. The License could be their only motivation to attend a computer class -- in other words, the only moment (especially when funded by public money) to expose them to GNU/Linux and OpenOffice.org.

Can you take the ECDL with free software? Maybe. The Syllabus doesn't restrict training and tests to any
specific software family. In practice, as you might imagine, a lot of local classes and manuals are just mindless sequences of buttons to click in this or that Microsoft program. There are exceptions, of course. In U.K., you can train and test on the Lotus suite of applications or, at a very small number of centers, on Apple machines. Still, as of last month, most U.K. courseware is for Microsoft Office.

According to Ecdl-Linux.DE, tests with GNU/Linux and StarOffice have been technically possible in every German ECDL test center since August 2002. Linux-based ECDL training,
however, is currently offered only in about 10 centers on a total of about 1,200, and there is no certified ECDL-Courseware for GNU/Linux.

Italy is in better shape. In October 2003 AICA released the specifications for Open Source versions of all the modules. These are based on KDE (2 or 3), OpenOffice.org 1.1, Mozilla, Evolution, and MySQL. As of last month, 237 test centers offer these modules, and the directory is by no means complete, as demonstrated by unlisted centers like the Scientific Lyceum in Salerno.

The Open ECDL portal and the corresponding mailing list are also devoted to this way to get the ECDL.

Training material is available from two other sources. The first is a community-driven Free Documentation Project, still in its infancy and completely independent from AICA. The second is the Smart ECDL Kit, the first Italian courseware officially compliant with the ECDL Syllabus 4.0. The package, which includes a printed book and
CD-ROMs with OpenOffice.org and Knoppix 3.2, covers open source ECDL on both Windows and GNU/Linux.

What next?

ECDL can become an excellent advocate of free software. It is essential to make citizens understand that their money should fund teaching of software that can be under their control. Unfortunately, the actual support in the field is still limited and fragmented. Right now, the several "FLOSS for ECDL" teams and portals just mentioned don't exchange or translate each other's material, nor do they plan to. This could be a place where the Eurolug Network could help a lot. I hope the various free software ECDL support organizations will consider this article a friendly invitation to meet each other and work together.

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