Developing Computer Skills

Author: William Haworth


Focusing on the IT skills required increasingly of staff in areas of administration, research and classroom practice, this article distinguishes generic core skills from those required in more specialist situations (such as applied language study and areas of linguistics). A number of key sources of information and training are given, together with a brief review of forms of certification. Best practice is seen as knowing how to define clearly the skills one needs to develop and, having aquired a new capability, being able to show that one can use it effectively.

Table of contents

1. Introduction: ICT - "the new chalk"

Computers have become ubiquitous in education over the past decade or so. Everyone knows that a computer is a machine which runs on logic; our reactions to them, however, often involve blind faith and false perceptions. The huge scale of the investment in hardware, software and support services can lead to an assumption that there is an implicit value in using ICT. It should, however, be used only when appropriate – that is, when it simplifies, clarifies or speeds up an activity or a process, or allows us to do something useful we could not achieve without it.

This having been said, ICT is used widely for administration, research and teaching and is now part of the portfolio of skills academics are expected to bring to their work – it has ceased to be an optional “add-on”. The range of potential applications is enormous, and whilst the debate on what constitutes good practice in the use of ICT to support teaching and learning is on-going, and levels of use vary enormously across the sector, core ICT skills are now an established element of academic literacy.

ICT does not merely allow old things to be taught in new ways, but it pushes back the limitations of current pedagogy. This is especially true for applied language study, as it breaks down the walls of the classroom, and produces an active, learner-centred environment with direct access to information and other users. This means, of course, that the role of the teacher changes. Whilst it is likely that the level of ICT competence of some students will, for some of the time at least, exceed that of the teacher, this should not be seen as an indictment of the teacher’s fitness to do the job (for this rests on subject expertise and pedagogical skills) but is an opportunity to establish a new type of partnership with learners.

2. What skills should be developed?

It is possible to draw up a check-list of what basic, generic skills are needed, but it is not feasible to specify discrete training needs for administration, research and teaching respectively, due to extensive overlap.

Appropriate training cannot be delivered as a one-off. The field is changing fast, and regular updating is essential. Indeed, the field of ICT is now so vast and diverse that it has developed into multiple specialist areas, and it is important to recognise that there comes a point beyond which training is not appropriate for academic staff in LL&AS(Languages,Linguistics and Area Studies). The aim of training is therefore not to reach the level of other professional specialists but to provide enough competence to do the basics and recognise when a task calls for specialist external input.

This article is not concerned explicitly with CALL – this is treated elsewhere in this Guide – but with generic ICT skills such as file management, word-processing, and e-mail, and it is perhaps natural to think of these as relevant to work outside the classroom. However, a small and very natural step leads from a non-teaching context into applications with students, and it is here that the greatest impact may be felt.

The relatively straightforward part of training is the procedural aspect: variants on "press key x and y happens". The more complex, challenging, yet neglected part addresses pedagogical issues: why, when and how to exploit ICT tools and resources to best effect.

2.1 Core skills

Generic ICT skills are defined in two major sources:

  1. DfEE Circular 4/98, Annexe B, sets out the ICT requirements for Qualified Teacher Status. A trainee must, at the end of a PGCE course, be able to show that s/he is a confident user of ICT and that s/he can use it competently in the teaching of the subject. (For the general context see under the PGCE Curriculum.) section 3.
  2. European Computer Driving Licence The ECDL is the European-wide qualification which enables people to demonstrate their competence in computer skills. The tests can be undertaken at accredited test centres across the UK.

The requirements of the DfEE and the ECDL are very similar:

ICT requirements for Qualified Teacher Status

  • Operating system
  • Word processing
  • E-mail
  • Web
  • CALL software
  • Presentation graphics
  • Image-handling software
  • Spreadsheets

European Computer Driving Licence

The ECDL consists of a seven module tests which lead to the qualification.

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

These generic categories need further development for LL&AS, and this has been done on the ICT4LT website. This is a Socrates-funded project which has produced 5 basic level and 11 intermediate and advanced level training modules on Information and Communications Technology for Language Teachers. Their contents are outlined below:

ICT4LT Basic level modules

  • Introduction to new technologies and how they can contribute to language learning and teaching
  • Introduction to computer hardware and software: what the language teacher needs to know
  • Using text tools in the modern foreign languages classroom
  • Introduction to Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL)
  • Introduction to the Internet

2.2 Specialist skills

The eleven ICT4LT topics covering specialist skills are as follows:

ICT4LT Intermediate level modules

  • CALL methodology: integrating CALL into study programmes
  • Introduction to multimedia CALL
  • Exploiting World Wide Web resources on-line and off-line
  • Using concordance programs in the modern foreign languages classroom
  • Introduction to CALL authoring programs

ICT4LT Advanced level modules

  • Managing a multimedia language centre
  • CALL software design and implementation
  • Creating a World Wide Web site
  • Corpus linguistics
  • Human Language Technologies (HLT)

ICT4LT Additional modules

  • Computer Aided Assessment (CAA) and language learning

Beyond these, other topics include the following:

  • Using a web-based language laboratory (e.g. CAN-8, plus classroom management software (e.g. Net Support School))
  • Video conferencing
  • Using Virtual Learning Environments (e.g. Blackboard, WebCT).
  • Digital video editing

3. Sources of training / information

Over the past 20 years various initiatives and bodies have been set up to promote and support ICT skills and awareness in UK HE:


  • The CTI Centre for Modern Languages (Computers in Teaching Initiative), based at the University of Hull since its inception in 1989, was one of 24 discipline-based centres, and promoted and encouraged the use of computers in language learning and teaching.
  • Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) focussed on the development of computer-based educational materials. In Languages, the TELL Consortium developed resources.
  • WELL - the WELL Project (Web Enhanced Language Learning) aimed to promote wider awareness and more effective use of the World Wide Web for Modern Languages teaching across UK HE.


  • LLAS LTSN C&IT Centre - the resources of the former C&IT Centre are now incorporated within the Subject Centre, which focuses on all aspects of the use of technologies throughout the discipline areas. It lists forthcoming training events.
  • HECALL - the Higher Education Computer Assisted Language Learning site -seeks to promote and advance the use of computer assisted language learning in Higher and Further Education in the UK, while at the same time providing a global showcase for all UK language centres and Computer Assisted Language Learning.

4. Format of training

Training materials and information may be accessed and worked through in a number of ways, such as workshops, lectures, presentations, show-and-tell sessions, group discussion, peer-support networks, and individual study. One of the findings of the WELL Project questionnaire circulated in October 1997 shows to what extent "do-it-yourself" training can take place. In response to the question: "How have staff learned to use the World Wide Web?", the answer shows that around 65% of training was on a self-taught basis or done through peer support.


UK HE institutions normally run courses in basic applications such as file management, word-processing, spreadsheets, e-mail and web browsing. These courses are usually generic, hence they overlook some areas which are central to handling foreign languages such as typing accented characters, using different characters sets, reconfiguring the keyboard, and the use of proofing tools in a foreign language.


There is very extensive documentation on common applications in several forms – within the program itself, as paper-based documentation, as an on-line resource, and sometimes as video tutorial. Taking each of these categories in turn one should note that:

Help within the program itself may work very well provided the user knows where and how to search for it, and can define the problem in a way the program can handle. Simple queries can produce confusingly complex responses. Searching for "accent" in MS Word 2000, for example, produces 26 possible topics, from which the user needs to pick "Insert symbols and special characters".

Paper-based documentation may be easier to use – MS Office software comes with clear and extensive documentation. Many other guides exist, e.g. Software Made Simple publish printed guides, guides on CD-ROM and guides for the web. They are recommended by the Plain English Campaign.

Web-based training materials - Web- and CDROM-based training materials in ICT for teachers of modern foreign languages.

Web-based information – generic - the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) is an international standard of competence for computer users which is funded under the Leonardo da Vinci Programme of the European Commission and supported in the UK by the British Computer Society. As described above, the ECDL assesses basic competences in key areas of ICT. Candidates obtain a logbook from a test centre listing all the modules. As they pass each module, the accredited testing body will sign the logbook. When all the modules have been successfully completed, the logbook is exchanged for a certificate. - National Curriculum online - National Grid for Learning - British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. Becta is the Government’s lead agency for ICT in education. It supports the UK Government and national organisations in the use and development of ICT in education to raise standards, widen access, improve skills and encourage effective management

Web-based information – for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies
CILT - the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.
EUROCALL - the European Association for Computer Assisted Language Learning.
LTSN (Learning and Teaching Support Network) - the UK national Subject Centre organisation, and the originator of this Good Practice Guide on the home page of the Subject Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies and hosted by the University of Southampton and by CILT.

Web-based information – application-specific - The British Universities Film and Video Council.
BUFVC promotes the production, study and use of film and related media in higher education and research. - Technical Advisory Service for Images. TASI provides training workshops for those involved in image digitisation projects, those who wish to capture images and those who wish to use digital images in teaching and research.

In a number of cases of advanced, specialist applications, there are no specific training resources beyond the documentation of the application itself. It is worth doing a web search to see whether there are user groups which might have an archive of FAQs or other information.

5. Assessment and certification

When starting training, the goal of the activity must be defined. ICT is such a vast and open-ended topic that the danger lies in spending an unrealistic amount of time and energy mastering the detail of an application when all that is really needed is an overview. Knowing when you’ve learned enough for current purposes is crucial.

For core ICT skills, it is a good idea to use a checklist to assess what you need to learn / have learned. On the ICT4LT site, there is an ICT Can Do Lists document, which helps users assess the development of their ICT skills, experience and understanding. ICT4LT does not provide assessment, but suggests Discussion topics for CALL-related topics.

European Computer Driving Licence certifies core, generic ICT skills.

Ultimately, the best form of assessment lies in the ability to apply the new skills.


Davies, G. (2002). Lessons from the Past, Lessons for the Future: 20 years of CALL. Available at:
[Also published in A-K. Korsvold & B. Rüschoff (1997) (eds), New Technologies in Language Learning and Teaching. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.]

DfEE Circular 4/98, Annexe B. (1998). National Curriculum for Initial Teacher Training Initial Teacher Training National Curriculum for the use of Information and Communications Technology in Subject Teaching. Department for Education and Employment.
Available at:

Felix, U. (2001). Beyond Babel: Language Learning Online. Melbourne: Language Australia.

Haworth, W. (2001). Supporting Professional Development in ICT. In J. Klapper (ed.), Teaching Languages in Higher Education. Issues in Training and Continuing Professional Development. London: CILT.

Kassen, M. A. & C. J. Higgins (1997). Meeting the Technology Challenge: Introducing Teachers to Language-Learning Technology. In M. D. Bush (ed.), Technology Enhanced Language Learning. Lincolnwood, Illinois, USA: National Textbook Company.

Related links

BECTA British Education Communications and Technology Agency

BUFVC British Universities Film and Video Council

CILT, The National Centre for Languages

ECDL European Computer Driving Licence

EUROCALL European Association for Computer-Assisted Language Learning

ICT4LT Information and Communications Technology for Language Teachers
self assessment - ICT Can Do Lists
main index - ICT4LT

LLAS Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

National Curriculum online

NGFL the National Grid for Learning

TASI Technical Advisory Service for Images
TELL Consortium

Software Made Simple guides

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