Interview: Ian Lynch, creator, INGOTs free software service certification


Author: Marco Fioretti

There is a Native American proverb that says, “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may not remember, involve me and I’ll understand.” These words are the mission statement of a new scheme for certifying IT capability — the International Grades in Office Technology (INGOTs) program. To obtain their certificates, students must demonstrate an understanding of free and open source software (FOSS) issues by actually contributing to the project. INGOTs creator Ian Lynch contributes to the as education lead. We have asked Ian to explain the main features and advantages of the program.

Are the INGOTs traditional courses?

No. We don’t force new courses into an already overcrowded school curriculum. We just give extra reward and incentive to students and teachers for good practice and up-to-date thinking. The certificates describe desired outcomes and provide criteria that the candidate can assess themselves against. Our trained assessors award the certificate when they and the candidate agree the criteria have been met.

What prompted you to create INGOTs?

Many e-learning programs still don’t get that the real power is the networking of people that the Internet enables. They just end up being a more expensive way to do what has always been done. A major goal, unique to INGOTs, is the community service dimension — that is, to provide recognition for a valuable contribution in an area of interest to the student. We allow children to make a positive contribution to world resources, with learning through participation. My targets are to make real a lot of rhetoric about transforming learning, lifelong learning, citizenship, internationalism, bridging the digital divide, etc. At present a lot of “innovation” is simply replicating yesterday’s teaching and learning methods on a computer.

What is your long-term strategy?

Like FOSS, it’s to drive things from grass roots. Large bureaucracies are not good at change. That is as true for education as it is for business. If we want young people to cope with rapid technological and social change, it has to come from involving them. Just look around any major inner-city and see what happens if young people feel alienated.

Can INGOTs be used to gain other certifications, or vice versa?

Any IT course that covers basic skills in generic applications (e.g. ECDL) will cover the INGOT criteria associated with software operation. Students would still need to perform the 25 hours of community service that the Gold certification requires, but that would normally be done outside normal classes. A class studying ECDL could achieve INGOT certification in addition by simply doing some work at home. The management of the certification program is through a moderated mailing list, so there would be no need for the teacher to do much except to show the student how to subscribe.

You mentioned the ECDL. Is INGOTs its direct competitor?

No, I deliberately designed them for a different purpose. The only real thing in common is that basic computer skills are part of our program too. ECDL is a fairly traditional approach with the same barriers as traditional exams. INGOTs are designed to lower barriers and progressively reward success by providing short-term goals and making the assessment a more integral part of learning.

Which limits and barriers? Philosophical or practical?

Both. Our children should learn transferable skills and knowledge. ECDL gives people a specific set of skills, taught and tested by traditional methods. It tends to entrench people in yesterday’s technology rather than prepare them for today and the future. INGOTs are much more about education for technological change and application of learning to creating useful resources.

What are the practical barriers?

The first is cost. ECDL can cost about £40 a candidate; INGOTs can be less than £1 a certificate. Developing countries don’t need a lot of money to set up INGOTs, and services can be charged at a rate the local economy can stand. ECDL is primarily aimed at the 16+ age group. INGOTs are well suited to children of age 5 and up, but can also be used with older people.

Are INGOTs limited to schools, and school-age people?

No, although it would be reasonable to expect a significant take up in this sector. We have schools using INGOTs for adult education, and have had many similar expressions of interest. The community service dimension is, for example, attractive to the prison service. Some adults do not want to go through formal teaching and exams just to show they can type some letters and use the Internet. There are quite a number of reasons why adults might choose to do INGOT certificates.

Could INGOTs certificates be gained with other free or open source software?

You can do INGOTs with any software as long as you meet the criteria, and the criteria are not specific to any particular applications.

Is the concept only for IT students?

No, INGOTs are not limited to software. We can support a wide range of subjects through the contributions to the project. Art and design for clip art and icons, business and economics, mathematics, geography, citizenship, and so on. Again, everything is learned in the context of real need and the interests of the student, not as theoretical exercises for an exam.

What is an INGOTs academy?

An official center of excellence, normally but not exclusively a school in the INGOTs community. They can be registered at four levels, depending on their assessors’ skills.

What is their status now, and how do you plan to sustain them?

We have about 30 academies now, in England, Serbia, Romania, Poland, and Australia, but we will also reach the U.S.A. and New Zealand in the next few weeks. We plan to make a section on the INGOTs Web site for academies for resources developed with academies subscriptions. We will later release these resources under Creative Commons licenses. If we can get all countries involved, even with just one INGOTs academy, it will make a big difference, because we will have many students generating resources as part of their community service and we will generate a source of income for strategic development.

Teachers are generally overworked and bombarded by government initiatives, so why should they adopt INGOTs?

First, motivated students are easier to teach, and motivation is a primary goal. Second, cost and bureaucratic overhead are very low. Third, teachers don’t need to change their technology and existing courses. INGOTs accredit good practice that should be there anyway but often isn’t and add value through the citizenship dimension.

Can INGOTs be a FOSS-based business opportunity?

Absolutely yes! This is something I’m very keen to promote. The scheme is low-cost, but also self-sustaining. I actively encourage FOSS enthusiasts worldwide to set up profitable INGOTs businesses. The ideal person would know the local education system, or have knowledge of training in businesses. They would be FLOSS-friendly and would like to set up their own business. One of the design aims was to provide a revenue stream to fund software development where there are gaps without having to charge for licenses.

What is the procedure?

It costs nothing but some time to set up an INGOTs franchise. My idea is to get a proportion of the money from these franchises, say 10%, back to the center and use this to fund OOo development projects, in addition to the resources developed by students doing their Gold INGOT. Locally, the entrepreneur can charge out the service for whatever amount the local market will stand. It might be 10 cents in some economies and 10 dollars in others.

Why franchising?

Even if I get sufficient income to start employing people in other countries directly, it will be a lot less effective than devolving the scheme to local interests. The power of small businesses is in ownership, which is why so many large corporations have downsized or reorganized themselves into small business units.

What support could you give to franchisees?

My first priority is to get the U.K. to generate enough income to pay someone to go into other countries. I’m doing it at the moment but there is a limit to what I can physically do myself. However, where there is a specific interest, I’ll try to come and train people free. I’m going to Warsaw to do this for 30 teachers in a couple of days. Everything is supported from the Web site and mailing lists, very similar to any FOSS project.

Community services, fairness, building and sharing your own tools. All these INGOTs characteristics make me think to Scouting and its merit badges, also because I consider FOSS as the soul of Scouting made software.

Education professionals could learn a lot about motivating young people from Scouting and similar organizations. I was a cub and a Scout here in the U.K. The INGOT certificates could be used for proficiency badges of the type I did, no doubt about that. Scout troops and associations are welcome to contact me through the INGOTs Web site.