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Literacy for all - with the help of ICT

In a remote village in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu state, India, Anu*, a 65-year-old grandmother, has learned how to read and write with the help of modern information and communication technologies.

Anu is waiting in her village Community Learning Centre (CLC) with a CD-ROM clutched in her hand. The CLC is the venue for a workshop and is full of strangers watching a slide presentation about a UNESCO project which uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance literacy education.

When the presentation is over, it is Anu’s turn. Her presentation is about what she learned in her literacy course at the CLC. She calmly inserts her CD-ROM into a computer disk drive and shows the audience how ICT have helped her learn to read and write in her own language.

After Anu has given her demonstration, other members of her literacy course eagerly present what they have learned too. The members of the course range from teenagers to elderly members of the community such as Anu, who is 65 years old.

Mr. Hameed A. Hakeem, Chief of the Asia-Pacific Programme of Education for All (APPEAL) at UNESCO Bangkok, who attended the workshop, is well aware of the long history of efforts to improve literacy worldwide and remarked that, “the lack of success in many cases indicates that there is a clear need for improved delivery and better learning materials. ICT can help.” Mr Hakeem is pleased with the success of the literacy course and sees it as “a very good example of how ICT and multimedia can attract and empower learners and enhance non-formal education.”

Using ICT to create local content
Anu’s course was radically different from the usual literacy lessons provided in learning centres in India. Instead of using “literacy primers”, the conventional texts for literacy education, which often contain content that is unrelated to the learner’s needs, Anu and the other course participants created their own, personalized learning content using a digital camera and other ICT tools.

The course was based around the idea that personalizing learning content enables the students to relate what they learn, in this case literacy skills, to their daily life and ensures that students spend time learning about what interests them. In this way, the learning process is more effective and learners remain motivated. Such personalization of learning content has the added advantage of ensuring that learning material is in the students’ own language.

Anu’s literacy course began with a lesson on how to use a digital camera. She had never even used a conventional camera before, and was delighted to learn to produce and view her own photographs. She took the camera home and photographed people and objects in her daily life, including her grandchildren and household items.

In her next lesson, Anu learned how to put her photographs into slide presentations and how to store them on CD-ROMs, using computers at the CLC. Then, with the help of the trainer, Anu paired each photograph with a letter of the alphabet (in the Tamil language). For example, a photograph of herself (Anu) was paired with the letter “a”.

Anu then used these slides as learning material in the literacy lessons provided by the CLC. She also made print-outs which enabled her to practice and build her literacy skills outside of the CLC. And as her literacy skills improved, Anu borrowed the digital camera again and created more content for her CD-ROM.

The value of literacy
Anu is excited about being able to read and write, and about being able to use new technologies. “I can read bus boards and travel on my own to my relatives’ houses,” she says. “I’m also able to count the money I earn on the weekends (in agricultural work) and look after my own accounts instead of needing others to help me do this,” she explains. “I can also use the Internet now,” she adds proudly. She has noticed that being able to read has made her more aware of what is going on in her village and wider community, giving her the opportunity to participate and contribute more often. Her new literacy skills have also enabled her to continue to feel confident and useful in her old age, since she is able to read medical instructions and other written material for her family members. Anu is also proud that she has disproved an old Tamil proverb, “ainthil valaiyathathu aimbathil valayathu” which means “if you are not learning at the age of five it is not possible to learn at the age of fifty.”

Meanwhile, the younger members of her literacy class are benefiting from their newly-gained literacy skills in a variety of ways, from reading the Tamil-language subtitles of Hindi movies and surfing the Internet, to embarking on courses in small-business management.

ICT in education
The CLC which provided the literacy course for Anu and other community members is participating in a UNESCO project which seeks to improve the quality and reach of non-formal education through utilizing ICT tools, the “ICT Applications for Non-Formal Education Programmes” project.

This project is part of UNESCO Bangkok’s ICT in Education programme. The programme goes beyond non-formal education; it consists of an integrated mix of linked projects which promote relevant ICT as tools to enhance the reach and quality of teaching in learning in all educational contexts.

The programme seeks to ensure that policy makers, educators and other decision makers are in a position to make informed choices when it comes to utilizing ICT in education. As Mr Cedric Wachholz, the Chief of the ICT in Education Unit, points out, “there have been numerous cases which demonstrate that unless implemented judiciously, investing in ICT can be a waste of scarce resources. Our programme aims to empower learners, teachers, educators, managers and leaders to use ICT effectively for expanding learning opportunities and ensuring educational quality and relevance.”

A wide range of areas are covered under the programme, including ICT in education policy; integrating ICT into teaching; and developing teaching-materials using ICT. As such, the programme aims to have the scope required to enable the potential of ICT to enhance education to be fully tapped and ensure that more people can benefit from ICT, as Anu and her fellow course participants have.

For further information about the programme, contact Mr Hameed A. Hakeem, APPEAL Unit, UNESCO Bangkok.


Note: * “Anu” is a nickname; her full name is Mrs. P. Petchiyammal.