To be Literate

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Reflecting on Reading and Writing in the 21st Century on World Literacy Day

by Debashree Roy

The event of world literacy day gives us an opportune moment to reflect on what it means to read and write in the 21st century. The concept of literacy has evolved from basic reading and writing skills, to functional literacy and the much touted phenomenon of digital literacy. The Web 2.0 takes learning to a new level, where blogs, wikis, social networking sites and virtual communities provide platforms for participatory learning. Innovations in education push the boundaries of modern learning to new levels at a dizzying pace. In the middle of these changes, the problem of illiteracy, especially functional illiteracy, still looms large. The question is: how can digital tools be used meaningfully to contribute to improving literacy?

When we speak of illiteracy, how bad is the situation really? Latest figures from UNESCOreveal that even as the global adult literacy rate is 83.7%, there are still roughly 16.3% or a staggering 800 million adults who are illiterate, almost 2/3rd of which are female. Of these, not only do Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia together house 3/4th of the world’s illiterate population, they also suffer from huge inter-regional differences (for example, Mali has a literacy rate of 26% and Equatorial Guinea that of 93%)2. While only around 87%3 of children worldwide enroll in the primary education level, one in every ten children enrolled does not even finish primary education4. Thus, a lot of the world’s population does not even make it to the level of higher education. Even within higher education, more than half the students enrolled for it do not finish their studies. The proportion of students dropping out increases for lower income background and reaches a peak for first generation learners5.

The problems of illiteracy do not restrict themselves to the boundaries of developing countries. According to UNESCO, less than 2% of the global illiterate population lives in North America, Europe and Central Asia combined6. However, a closer look reveals facts that differ. Recent studies show how as many as 7.5 million adults (an astounding 14.5% of the population) in Germany are proven to be functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy refers to the insufficient knowledge of reading and writing, which hinders a person from being an active participant in a society and its development. In 2003, 14% of the American population was found to lack basic reading and writing skills for everyday functions. Similarly, a study conducted in France between 2004-05 revealed 9% of the schooled adult population to be functionally illiterate.

Literacy, or the ability to read and write, is generally taught at the primary level of schooling. The provision of primary education has traditionally been the responsibility of the government. Governments, however, often fail to provide this crucial public good in many countries. The reasons for this failure range from a corrupt bureaucracy, conflict situations, puny education budgets, teacher absenteeism to a plain lack of interest. In some cases, the private sector stepped in. In other cases, as the saying goes, ‘necessity has led to inventions’. The primary education scene today, especially in developing countries, is rife with such inventions that frequently make use of digital technology.

Technology has been used to improve higher education for a long time. The Internet today is being used as a platform where learning is made cheaper and easier. Everyone contributes and knowledge is shared freely and discussed openly. Some websites, such as Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, deliver entire distance education programmes to adult and part-time learners who cannot attend regular classes, by providing them with alternative means of education. Or they serve as support for enrolled students, helping to reduce drop out rates. We at iversity also believe in the benefits of digital education. We want to provide improved and more efficient means of collaboration and, thus, seek to modernise higher education in our own way. So if digital technology can help make higher education more efficient, why should we not use the same platforms, tools and principles to improve primary education?

In fact, there are a surprising number of ventures that attempt to do exactly that. For example, the likes of Sugata Mitra and Salman Khan are revolutionising the ways in which educational content is delivered and children are taught. While the former demonstrated that their curiosity drives children to teach themselves when given access to a computer, the latter helps students who cannot pay tuition or attend regular classes by providing free access to thousands of online video lessons. The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative provides primary school children throughout the developing world with the means to access such content. Much like Mitra, Nicolas Negroponte, the founder of the OLPC-initiative, aims to demonstrate that children can learn by themselves if empowered to do so. Recognising the fact that mobile phones in most countries of the world have become accessible to almost all strata of a society, there are also exciting experiments in the field of mobile education. Some attempt to teach language literacy through game like applications. Others, like Worldreader, aim to bring literacy to developing countries through the introduction of e-books into primary classrooms.

These innovations are few and far between. Though conceptually brilliant, many face basic problems like lack of electricity or internet to enable the use of digital technology. They probably do not reach as many people as the state could. They are also unable to participate in education policies which would ensure a reduction in social and gender gaps and/or ensure basic infrastructure. However, in all their limitations, such
innovations are worth applauding for the very fact that they try to change things in a place where the government cannot or does not want to. Even if they only reach out to a given few, it is a start. Every year, UNESCO awards interventions that support education. Through this blog post, in our own small way, we would like to honour the small and big efforts that are being made worldwide by individuals to help literacy through technology.

UNESCO Institute of Statistics, Adult and Youth Literacy, Sept 2011, no. 16, p. 1.
2 ibid, p. 2.

World Bank Data (2009) at http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.PRM.NENR/countries?display=graph. Last checked on 08.09.2011
World Bank Data (2009) at http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.PRM.CMPT.ZS/countries?display=grap. Last checked on 08.09.2011

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Online Education vs Traditional Learning: Time to End the Family Feud, Oct 2010, pp 2
UNESCO Institute of Statistics, Adult and Youth Literacy, Sept 2011, no. 16, pp 3 

Photography by Ryan Lobo

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