ICDL seeks to build up computer skills

The success of the region’s e-government services lies on how well its citizens adapt to these initiatives. However, a lack of IT skills is making the move difficult.

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By  Caroline Denslow Published  May 8, 2005

|~|main_icdl_feature_page01.jpg|~|As the region continues to invest on digital governance, the need to address poor computer literacy levels is of paramount importance. Governments in the Middle East have started investing on ICDL certification programmes to help improve their citizens’ skills and realise the rewards of e-government services.|~|Governments in the Middle East are investing heavily in implementing e-government services. However, adoption of these systems is being held back by low internet penetration rates and poor IT skills in the region. To combat the skills problem, governments are investing in IT training for their populations based on ICDL (International Computer Driving License) standards. Dubai has long been considered as one of the region’s leaders in digital government and ICDL training. To date, the emirate’s e-government departments, through the Dubai eGovernment platform, are delivering no less than 1,500 e-services, of which around 1,200 of these are transactional services while the rest are informational services. Mahmood Al Bastaki, acting director, eServices, Dubai eGovernment, says Dubai is are pushing ahead with plans to provide 90% of government services through electronic channels, including web, mobile devices and fixed line telephones by the end of 2007. This makes Dubai one of the few cities to reach the final stages of e-governance’s project lifecycle — that of seamless integration — according to the United Nations’ international classification. It has also been included by Rutgers University among the top 20 cities in the world in terms of digital governance. At 29.6%, the UAE’s internet penetration rate is above the global average of 13.9%, as shown by consolidated data from Nielsen/NetRatings and ITU (International Telecommunication Union). But for a country that is pushing to provide 90% of its government services through electronic channels, leaving 70% of its population unexposed to internet technology means that considerable effort must be undertaken to bridge the gap. Lack of sufficient infrastructure is not the main problem; rather it is the low levels of computer literacy that is hindering the adoption of e-government. To address the issue, the government adopted the ICDL certification programme to provide basic skills training to locals. Other GCC governments have also adopted ICDL as a means of improving the computer literacy levels in their countries. Since then, ICDL has become the most widely accepted basic computer skills certification programme in the region. “In order for the citizens and residents of these countries to take advantage of the tremendous range of e-government services available to them, it is necessary for them to have basic computer skills,” says Susan Bodinson, general manager, Element K Middle East. “By undertaking an ICDL certification, people will have the necessary skills to take full advantage of the e-government initiatives available to them,” she adds. ||**||Digital divide|~|main_icdl_feature_page02.jpg|~|To benefit from e-government initiatives, citizens need to have basic computer skills, says Susan Bodinson.|~|Ideally, e-government aims to make a government and its services more accessible to its citizens. More importantly, it aims to ensure that new technology does not create a digital gap between those with ready access to electronic media and those without so that each individual will be able to use data and information more effectively. These very reasons are driving home the need to implement ICDL training in the region, claims Jamil Ezzo, director general of ICDL-GCC Foundation. “The world is witnessing a dramatic transformation in which proficiency in computers is the driving force to socio economic development,” Ezzo says. “ICDL was conceived with the express purpose of creating opportunities for employment and be a powerful enabler of development and a force in social change in the region, by dedicating itself to providing access for all to the information society and raising the general level of computer skills in the society.” Governments first executed the ICDL programme internally to prepare its staff for the launch of their e-government services. The Dubai government started eEmployee, a programme designed to provide IT skills to government employees through online and classroom training. The government further expanded the pilot project started by eEmployee, incorporating ICDL in its e4all initiative, which requires all government employees in Dubai to complete basic ICDL training. Aside from the UAE, the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia have also been endorsing the ICDL programme to government employees. In Jordan, for example, the government has directed all federal employees to complete ICDL certification by 2006. In Egypt, the programme is being endorsed by the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of ICT and e-Government. “ICDL certification is providing a drastic push to drive e-government initiatives in the region and specifically the UAE with a far better pace than expected,” says Mohammed Aslam, regional general manager, New Horizons Computer Learning Centres. “ICDL is actually pushing away the reluctance by some government employees to use computers and the internet, grow their awareness and make them feel the difference [technology can provide].” ||**||‘e’ for all|~|main_icdl_feature_page03.jpg|~|Training centres have to undergo annual accreditation to ensure quality is maintained, Jamil Ezzo claims.|~|Governments have acknowledged the importance of IT for the development of the region and have thus initiated key reforms to bridge the digital divide and make IT a dominant discourse. Key to these reforms is the integration of ICDL training in school and university curricula. Most of the education ministries in the GCC, as well as in other countries in the Middle East, have endorsed the ICDL programme at the school level. The UAE Ministry of Education has signed an MoU with ICDL, calling for the incorporation of ICDL syllabus into the IT teaching curricula of all public schools. The Abu Dhabi Education Zone is looking at accrediting all 54 of its schools for ICDL training. Kuwait and Oman have made it mandatory for all its teachers to become ICDL certified and have incorporated the ICDL syllabus in their curriculum as well. “The GCC region is expanding rapidly on all fronts and there is an increased dependency on the internet and the use of computers. In order to profit from this boom, we need to start from the grassroots. We have to ensure that computer literacy is given as much importance in schools as common education,” says Ezzo. “ICDL sits in perfectly within the education system and it is a vital part of the educational reforms that are taking place here in the region,” he adds. These reforms, he says, are necessary because of the demands for new knowledge and skills in the workforce. “IT has changed the nature of work and the types of skills required in most fields and professions. GCC countries are now faced with the prospect of addressing the challenge posed to the educational systems to produce workers with the required skills and who are adaptable and receptive to lifelong learning,” he explains.||**||IT skills|~|main_icdl_feature_page04.jpg|~|ICDL training has helped government employees adapt to computers and the internet, and embrace e-government services easier, according to Mohammed Aslam.|~|ICDL certification is also important to the private sector, says Bodinson, because it provides companies with a skilled workforce that are needed to operate IT-centric business processes. “ICDL assures organisations that if they hire an employee who holds an ICDL certification, he or she will bring the company a standard level of computer competency skills,” says Bodinson “It also ensures organisations that employees from different educational skills and backgrounds will have a common set terminology when referring to computers and IT. This maximises efficiency within organisations as all ICDL certificate holders share a common set of terminology and skills. No additional training is necessary for team members to work together in an IT setting,” Bodinson explains. “Companies are now becoming increasingly aware of the importance of basic computer knowledge, which they can build upon their future corporate requirements. ICDL certification adds value to business processes in organisations by facilitating the flow of work, by saving time, therefore increasing revenue,” adds Aslam. The Abu Dhabi for Onshore Oil Operations (ADCO), for instance, has installed an ICDL accredited training and test centre to equip its employees with basic computer skills, says Andre van Strijp, general manager of ADCO. “The ICDL programme ensures a minimum competency level for all employees and provides them with the confidence and skills to perform basic IT procedures which, in turn, reduces the burden on our helpdesk,” comments van Strijp. “This reduces our overall costs and, as such, we’ll receive return on investment for the hardware and software purchased to assist in our e-learning project.” The accredited centre will also enable ADCO to transparently assess employee IT knowledge across the board and draw out a plan to bring those with no or limited IT skills up to speed, adds van Strijp. So far, most ICDL deployments in the business sector are being done by semi-government organisations, reveals Ezzo. However, several financial institutions have also started incorporating ICDL within their corporate training programmes, he adds. “There are several banks that currently work with us on implementing ICDL within their organisations. But mostly, we’ve seen semi-government organisations adopting ICDL,” says Ezzo. “The private sector is not necessarily resisting the use of ICDL but because they may have more custom-made applications, they have to focus more on internal training,” Ezzo explains.||**||Training|~|main_icdl_feature_page05.jpg|~|A number of governments are working with ICDL to launch the e-citizen programme, which is a computer training programme targeting mainly those who do not have any computer skills at all.|~|At present, there are more than 600 approved training and test centres in the GCC region. ICDL imposes stringent membership requirements to ensure the integrity and quality of the programme, says Ezzo. “There are requirements and the requirements are rather rigorous. Applicants (training centres) have to have a certain set-up. The computers have to be of certain configuration. The learning environment has to be in a certain setting and the people that deliver the training and the testing also have certain qualifications and training experience to meet from ICDL,” explains Ezzo. “We monitor every exam that takes place at any of the centres that we accredit. So the accreditation procedures are rather becoming rigorous to control the quality and the integrity of the certificate because the certificate issued here is recognised worldwide. If a candidate or a person takes the certificate through the UK, universities in the UK recognise it. If they take it to Zimbabwe, employers and universities recognise it. So it’s very important for us to ensure the integrity of the certificate and to ensure that it is in the right hand of people that deliver the training and the testing,” he adds. ICDL-approved centres also undergo regular audits and spot checks. Accreditation is done annually, and member centres have to submit for yearly evaluation. ICDL-member centres like New Horizons and Element K deliver ICDL courses ranging from basic to advanced levels, and uses a combination of online and classroom training methods. “We offer the ICDL Syllabus 4.0 courses in Arabic and English in both online and book formats. The ICDL Syllabus 4.0 comprises seven different modules (Basic Concepts of IT, Using the Computer and Managing Files, Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Database, Presentation and Information and Communication) and we have a separate course and book for each module,” says Bodinson. Most courses are designed using the Windows XP Operating System and Office 2003. These include the Arabic versions of the software for ICDL Arabic courses. Courseware books and modules are designed by about eight vendors such as Thomson NETg, Sybex, Element K, RedSoft and CiA Training. The materials used by ICDL centres in the Middle East have to adapt to the region’s special requirements to reflect the linguistic differences and cultural concerns found in the region, says Ezzo. “In Saudi Arabia, for example, we can’t use pictures of women in our course books. We can’t use Christian names and we can’t use transliteration (transformation of text from one script to another, usually based on phonetic equivalencies so that it can be pronounced by English speakers) of certain words. These are what we look for as the governing body of the ICDL programme here in the region. We need to ensure that the content provided to the trainees are within the standards as specific to the syllabus as well as the cultural concerns that we have here,” Ezzo stresses. While ICDL programmes are running smoothly, Ezzo says the ultimate goal of the organisation is to fill in the digital gap in the region and make sure that people from all walks of life are well equipped to cope in a knowledge-based society. “We’re working with a number of governments now on the introduction of e-citizen. e-citizen is a programme that will enable a citizen to communicate better with his government, to allow him to use government services that are offered online, and to help him look for a job online,” says Ezzo. According to Ezzo, the e-citizen programme is mainly targeting those who are not computer proficient. “There are a lot of people in our society, especially women who are mothers and housewives, who are not part of the workforce and as a result, are not computer-literate. We are looking to introduce e-citizen in partnership with the e-government departments of every GCC country to encourage people to learn about computers and gain IT skills,” Ezzo explains. ICDL will be offering specific training courses designed to help citizens acquire skills necessary to cope with technology-based activities that they encounter in their day-to-day routine, such as e-banking courses and online shopping. ICDL is looking at getting these courses sponsored by private companies, according to Ezzo. “If we are teaching e-banking, a bank will sponsor the e-banking training. If we are teaching online shopping, for example, the e-mall or people that want to sell online will sponsor the cost of the training,” Ezzo says. Other related costs such as promotions and testing will be subsidised by the governments, he adds. To encourage people to partake in this programme, a rewards system will be put in place wherein an e-citizen ID card will be issued to those who sign up for the training and undergo testing. “Those who sign up for the training and take the ICDL exam will get an e-citizen ID, which is part of a rewards system that we are putting in place. By using the e-citizen ID whenever they do online transactions, they will be able to accumulate points, which they can cash in for free vacations, hotel stays or airline tickets,” adds Ezzo. Ezzo concedes that a programme of this proportion will take considerable time, effort and money to implement, and the governments’ commitment is necessary to ensure its success. “For many governments, this is a challenging job, given social and economic constraints,” says Ezzo. “But what is most important is the commitment of the governments and the conviction that computer knowledge is the key to success in today’s world,” Ezzo concludes.||**||

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