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Over the last three months (November 2007 to February 2008), I have been using my spare time to study for my European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL - for more details see my previous review, "I've passed my driving test"). One of the great advantages of this course is its flexibility, which meant I was free to teach myself the syllabus using materials of my choice, rather than attend classes, be formally tutored by distance learning, or have to buy expensive set texts. This made gaining the qualification a good deal cheaper for me, and meant I could work at my own pace rather than the pace of someone else's course. I also felt I had sufficient prior knowledge to be able to teach myself the bits I didn't know or was less confidant about.
I bought myself a textbook ("The Complete Coursebook for Office 2000" for £15, currently £20, see http://tinyurl.com/22yatf) and interactive CD ROM ("Teaching You ECDL" for £9.99, see http://tinyurl.com/226qe9) from Amazon, which gave an easy, accessible and inexpensive entry into ECDL. It seemed a logical choice for me to have a CD ROM to complement the textbook I was buying; it would be a visual, interactive, practical tool that would reinforce what I was reading. I planned to read the theory in the book, and then reinforce what I had learned by doing the practical exercises on the CD ROM. It was especially important as I didn't have the full MS Office package on my home computer, so it would allow me a degree of practice with software I didn't have easy access to without the huge expensive of buying Office just for my course. There were a selection of different software packages on Amazon, but I chose this one because it was competitively priced, had a good user rating on the site (five stars), and was described as a "one stop training package for anyone who wants to pass their ECDL". The book and CD ROM balanced each other out in terms of study methods, and I recommend this as a good approach if you already have a reasonable level of IT literacy; if you are more of a beginner or lack confidence, then it might be worth considering paying more for a tutored course.
"Teaching You ECDL" was aimed squarely at beginners, so anyone who could power up a PC and put the CD in it would be able to use it; installation was quick and very simple, and within minutes it was ready to go (although there are instructions on the back of the cover sleeve if you get stuck). To be able to run this on a PC, you would need the following system requirements:
Operating System: Windows 2000/XP/Vista
CPU: Pentium II 233 or equivalent
Hard drive: None needed, runs from CD
Graphics: Any 8MB 3D graphics card
CD ROM Speed: 4x or faster
Audio: Any Windows compatible soundcard
To the non-technical amongst you, that equates to a machine that is far from being a super computer. A relatively slow machine, as long as it had a sufficiently up-to-date operating system would be able to comfortably run this CD ROM - my aged laptop, now over five years old and nearing the end of its life span, coped with it without any problems.
The CD ROM covers the current ECDL syllabus (version 4), with the software modules being demonstrated in MS Office 2000. I found this presentation to be helpful in taking my exams in MS Office 2000 and 2003, but anyone wanting instruction in Office 2007 should look elsewhere, as the redesign for this package is substantially different to Office 2000 and this might cause difficulty for the student.
When you start up the CD ROM, you are taken through an end-user license agreement, then a short introductory section on how to use it (which you can skip if you want to). You are then taken to a very simple screen that lists the seven ECDL modules; you just click on the module you want to work on and off you go. Within each module, the syllabus is broke down into topical sections and instructional sub-sections within them that make it easy to find specific pieces of information. So, for example, if you wanted to go over how to create a report in Access, then you would follow a path of clicking on "databases", then part 5 (reporting), and finally the sub-section entitled "create and save a report" to be presented with a short instructional piece on how to do it. The ordering of the sections are not always what I would consider to be the most logical, but it is relatively straightforward to find a specific topic if you want to.
The instructional sections took the form of a screen shot (for the software modules) or illustration (for the theoretical modules) with controls at the bottom to play, pause, stop, and restart the lesson. All instructions are spoken, but seem have been recorded by Terry in the office rather than a professional, as the diction is rather stilted, and both sound quality and volume varies quite considerably. The amateurish presentation is not a huge problem for the most part, but there were sections that I had to replay because I couldn't hear the speech clearly the first time around; I think optional subtitles would have been a useful feature to see, as it would have helped with this element, and also this package is currently pretty useless for anyone with a hearing impairment. When you have been presented with a lesson in the software, there is usually an interactive "now you try" section to follow, where you can replicate the steps just shown to perform a function. It is a pretty simplistic approach, but I found it does aid memory; it makes the CD ROM much more effective at teaching the practical rather the theoretical parts of the ECDL course. The information presented is clear to understand, but given the obvious emphasis towards this being a beginner's course I was surprised that the software modules didn't include an introductory section on any of them. If you are new to a piece of software, a short explanation and overview of the key features and terminology is useful before you start to actually learn how to use it. Having never used Access before, for example, I felt quite lost when the first sections on module 5 didn't give me this basic framework to start from - I needed to go to my textbook to get this starting point, and then come back to the CD ROM. Hardly the "one stop" package it claims to be!
Over all, I do think I got my money's worth from this CD ROM, as I used it a lot over the three months I was studying for my ECDL. For the number of hours I got from it, £9.99 was certainly not bad, and I think it did help me to pass my course. It was certainly very useful to be able to see the layout of, and interact with, software I didn't have by using the CD ROM - this made it a useful purchase in itself. However, it certainly had some weaknesses too - notably the poor sound in some sections, the use of a more outdated version of Office than was necessary (Office 2000, despite the CD being copyrighted in 2006), and the lack of module introductions that would have really benefited the beginners it was clearly aimed at. It was not the most professional of training packages, but if you plan to teach yourself the ECDL then it is a decent addition to a textbook, for the software modules a least. But I wouldn't recommend it on its own - I felt I needed the textbook to clarify certain points and to explain some thing a different way. I might have been a bit confused (or under-prepared for my exam) had I relied on the CD alone.