Future proofing IT education

The ICDL qualification is being used in schools to build a foundation of digital skills, but it also offers a pathway to comprehending complex computing concepts

Linda Keane, general manager of ICDL Ireland: ‘Now we’re talking about the ‘how’ of digital skills, and part of that is ‘what’, asking what do students need.’ Picture: Ruth Vaughan Photography

Given how deeply information and communications technology (ICT) is embedded in our lives these days, particularly in the workplace, it can come as a surprise that many people, especially young people, have a weaker skillset than might be expected.

According to the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), Ireland ranked fifth in the EU 27 for digital skills, but the average is being pulled higher by the significant footprint of the tech industry and the government’s ongoing digital transformation. Against that, Ireland has a lower-than-average ranking for basic digital skills.

“Although Ireland performs above the EU average in advanced digital skills (for example, for the indicators on ICT specialists, female ICT specialists and ICT graduates), the basic digital skills of the population are a little lower (53 per cent against the EU average of 56 per cent),” the DESI 2021 report noted.

It is an interesting conundrum: a country that has a noted focus on technology, particularly in the foreign-direct investment sector, has a shortfall in tech skills among the population.

The fallacy of the digital native remains a problem, Linda Keane, general manager of ICDL Ireland, said. This is the idea that because young people spend a lot of time using devices for social media they have developed skills that can be transferred to other areas. However, scrolling TikTok does not equate to being able to use, for instance, even office productivity software, let alone working with complex technologies.

ICDL Ireland, which offers ICDL training and certification to schools, the FET sector and adults, places an emphasis on ensuring learners acquire skills from the ground up, said Keane.

“From ICDL’s perspective, we have heard people asking ‘why do we still need to learn digital skills’, but, generally speaking, the conversation has moved on. The focus has certainly shifted. Now we’re talking about the ‘how’ of digital skills, and part of that is ‘what’, asking what do students need,” she said.

The answer is that digital skills must be understood broadly.

“Some might say they just need coding, or they just need something else, but the truth is that everyone needs the foundations,” she said.

Key among the skills that the ICDL seeks to build is the ability to both learn independently and to collaborate online. In addition, ICDL as a qualification is designed to actually teach the skills that are expected in the workplace.

“There is a sense out there that if you just tinker around with a tool you’ll learn it, but you really need to be taught,” she said.

Likewise, the fact that students today are doing project work for other subjects using IT does not equate to an education in IT itself, and certainly not relevant certification.

ICDL is internationally recognised and assessment based, having long ago moved beyond its European origins and is today recognised as the world’s leading computer skills certification. The certification aspect is an important piece of the puzzle, said Keane.

“The certification is based on a validated assessment that proves the holder has the skills. The leaving cert does that and it’s no different with digital skills,” Keane said.

The ICDL is taught through an interactive e-learning platform, lowering the burden on teachers and is fully modular, including core components such as computer and online essentials, as well as teaching specific applications.

More than 25 modules are now offered in the ICDL, and students are able to choose their own pathway through the qualification, which is automatically recorded in the qualification as they progress. Students with a deep interest in computing might study areas such as computational thinking, coding and data analytics, and ICDL offers modules on important growth areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, the internet of things (IoT) and cloud computing.

“These give students a conceptual understanding,” Keane said.

For Keane, the point is that, even in a fast-changing and ever-evolving area like information technology, solid groundwork is needed to build. Having built this solid foundation, students will be able to progress through their education and into their careers.

“It’s an investment now in something they’ll have for life,” she said.