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ICT and literacy

This article provides an overview of the literacy issue and explains how ICT can be used to improve literacy education. The article discusses five areas in which ICT can be utilized in literacy education, and concludes with several recommendations for decision makers regarding the use of ICT in literacy education.

January 2007

What is Literacy?

© UNESCO / Marilyn Jeffrey

While all approaches to literacy are related to the ability to understand and communicate via written text, there is no standard international definition of literacy that captures all its facets. Over the past 60 years our understanding of literacy has expanded and the definition has subsequently evolved. This evolving definition has in turn led to changes in approaches to literacy education.

Recognizing that “people acquire and apply literacy for different purposes in different situations”(UNESCO, 2004), and that literacy is not uniform, but is culturally and linguistically diverse, UNESCO today views the concept of “literacy” as a plural notion. UNESCO recognizes that skills for written expression and comprehension are related to particular contexts and languages, and that the value of these skills lies in the ability to apply them in a beneficial way.

New Uses of the Word “literacy”
The word “literacy” is often used today as a substitute for the word “ability” or “competency”. For example, “computer literacy” is the ability to use computers and access and create information through a computer.

Such uses should not be confused with the term “literacy” as we use it here, i.e. the skills related to reading, writing and communicating in the written form.

Examples of other uses of the word “literacy” include:

  • Information literacy: The skills required to organize and search for information, while also analyzing and presenting that information.
  • Media literacy and research literacy: The ability to be a discerning reader and the ability to find various types of information.

While the abilities listed here, such as computer “literacy” and information “literacy”, are necessary skills to cultivate in emerging knowledge societies, the ability to read and write is a prerequisite for gaining many of these abilities. Furthermore, studies indicate that although learning to read and write requires significant guidance and a degree of formalized education, learning to use a computer and other modern technologies can be an intuitive process.

Why Literacy Matters

The benefits of literacy are varied, ranging from the individual benefits of raised self-esteem to the socio-economic benefits of greater workforce productivity. Some of the key areas in which literacy brings benefits are listed below:

  • Self esteem
  • Empowerment
  • Communication
  • Education
  • Maternal and Child Health
  • Socio-economic development
  • Participation
  • Cultural identity and diversity

Literacy Facts and Figures

The task of achieving global literacy is enormous. Using the standard measure by which people report on their own literacy, there are 771 million illiterate adults globally, or 18% of the world’s adult population, according to the latest estimates.

The United Nations Literacy Decade
In 2002, the United Nations declared the decade between 2003 and 2012 the “United Nations Literacy Decade”. The aim of the Decade is to bring literacy to all. The overall target for the Literacy Decade is the UNESCO Education for All (EFA) goal of increasing literacy rates by 50% by 2015.

Because of the social and political benefits that literacy brings, the achievement of the Literacy Decade goals is central to the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

ICT as a Tool for Achieving Literacy for All

What is ICT?

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are often associated with high-tech devices, such as computers and software, but ICT also encompasses more “conventional” technologies such as radio, television and telephone technology.

What role can ICT play in promoting Literacy?

The five key ways in which ICT can promote literacy are as follows.

  • Enhancing Learning

ICT can be used as a tool for acquisition of literacy skills. For example, radio, when used in combination with printed course material, can make literacy lessons more true-to-life and interesting.

Television, video, video-compact-disc (VCD) and digital video disc (DVD) technologies provide words, images, movement and animation in combination with audio. This combination can facilitate reading comprehension and accelerate literacy learning. Such forms of ICT can also be entertaining and thereby motivate the target audience to watch and learn. Television and other audio-visual media can also provide a means by which to stimulate discussion and critical thinking.

Studies of the impact of computer assisted instruction (CAI) indicate that the use of computers in literacy education can enhance the uptake of literacy skills for a number of reasons. For example, since computers are able to provide users with immediate feedback, learners of literacy can proceed more quickly and effectively than otherwise. Using computer programs, the learner’s needs and interests can be met. Learners can work independently, flexibly, and at their own pace, developing both oral and aural skills at the same time as learning to read.

Furthermore, well-designed educational computer programs are exciting to use, which motivates learners, especially when literacy teachers are well-trained in integrating computer technology into lessons. For example, colours and animation in computer programs engage learners and encourage them to participate. Similarly, by presenting reading lessons in a game form, computer programs encourage learners to compete against themselves and therefore learners willingly engage in repetition and practice without losing interest. Such computer programs, by tirelessly repeating words and correcting errors for large numbers of students at the same time, also take the pressure off overworked teachers.

  • Broadening Access to Literacy Education

Access to literacy education may be limited, or may be denied, for a number of reasons. These include social, cultural, political and geographical factors, as well as lack of time to attend classes, lack of qualified teachers, lack of literacy materials in local languages and issues such as delay in receipt of feedback and results.

ICT can help to overcome many of these barriers. For example, forms of ICT such as radio, television and the Internet can help overcome geographical barriers by facilitating distance learning, thereby bringing literacy education to people who live in areas that are difficult to reach.

Although radio lacks the visual element required for literacy education, this technology is useful in literacy programmes as it is entertaining, easily accessible and affordable. Also, local radio stations usually have close ties with the resident community, so are in touch with the preferences of the community as well as the language and culture, and therefore have an understanding of the needs and literacy requirements of the community. Such an understanding of community needs is vital for the successful implementation of literacy education projects.

By providing literacy course content in a form that can be accessed by learners at a time that is suitable for them and at a speed that can be controlled, audio cassettes, videos, video-compact-discs (VCDs), digital video discs (DVDs), and compact discs (CD-ROMs) can help overcome the issues of lesson times and convenience. Furthermore, because these forms of ICT can be utilized in a learner’s own home, this can overcome social and cultural constraints that many learners may face in terms of attending literacy classes.

Videoconferencing and teleconferencing are other technologies that can be used in literacy education. The use of these interactive technologies to communicate over long distances can save travelling time and money. For example, rather than bringing a teacher to a school in an outlying area, the use of videoconferencing can bring the teacher’s expertise to the students for a relatively low cost, and allow teachers to share their knowledge with others without requiring an absence from their normal classes.  

  • Creating Local Content

ICT can enable the rapid and cost-effective creation and distribution of socially, culturally and linguistically appropriate learning content. For example, word-processing software can be used to modify literacy education material that has been developed elsewhere, to make it available in local languages and on locally-relevant subjects.

Similarly, desktop publishing technology is useful in creating local teaching and learning materials and it eliminates the problem of outdated learning content in many countries since it makes production of printed matter much more timely and relevant.

Digital cameras are another tool that can be used to create local content. Digital cameras can be used by students to collect images of objects of interest to them. When lessons are based around these pictures, this puts learners in greater control of their learning, and ensures lessons are interesting and relevant, making the learning process more effective. By matching words (in the local language) with images they have collected using digital cameras, learners are able to learn to read and write on subjects that are important in their daily life. Then, by sequencing the pictures, learners can create sentences and stories, thereby further developing their literacy skills.

Computers can be used in a number of other ways to create learning content for literacy education. For example, the development of interactive computer programs for literacy learners, which are based on local themes and subject matter. Such learning materials can be easily and cheaply distributed via CD-ROM.

  • Professional Development of Teachers

Qualified and trained teachers represent the key to quality teaching and learner motivation. However, in many countries professional expertise is limited and thinly distributed, particularly for the provision of non-formal literacy education. While ICT cannot be substitutes for teachers, ICT can supplement and support teachers by reducing their workload and enhancing their lessons.

In addition, ICT can be used as effective and affordable tools in the professional development of teachers. For example, television, video and DVD technologies can be used to show examples of best practice teaching methodologies. Similarly, computers and computer programs can be used to train teachers in certain subjects. Also, teleconferencing can be used to enable interactive training over long distances, making in-service training affordable and simpler for teachers working in remote areas.

  • Cultivating a Literacy-Conducive Environment

For literacy to become widespread in a society, written material should also be readily available in daily life and accessible to all. Such an environment cultivates opportunities for coming into contact with, and creating, written material and thereby reinforces and promotes the development of literacy skills.

ICT can be utilized to help make written information part of everyday life. For example, television can be a tool for bringing written material into daily life when text is screened in conjunction with images on the television screen, such as subtitles on television programmes.

Similarly, short message service (SMS) technology, which allows subscribers to use their dial pads to type and send text-based messages through their mobile phone, encourages the development of skills in reading and writing and is therefore a means by which written material, and literacy skills, can become a part of everyday life.

Desktop publishing technology is another tool for creating a literacy-conducive environment, as it can facilitate production and distribution of local newspapers and can enhance information-sharing. Also, the relatively low cost of creating printed matter using desktop publishing can increase the quantity of circulation of print materials, thereby increasing the opportunities for access to written material.

A vast range of information, books, and other written text is available on the Internet and can be accessed at any time and from anywhere that has the infrastructure set up to provide it. The internet therefore has great potential in terms of enabling people to have everyday access to written material.

Community learning centres (CLCs) and other information hubs have become a common way of cultivating sharing of knowledge and learning. With the introduction of ICT, particularly Internet connection, these CLCs are serving as a means to cultivate literacy by providing free or low-cost access to written material as well as courses in reading and writing skills.

Strategies for better literacy education

Below are a number of recommendations for decision makers regarding strategies for achieving the UN Literacy Decade goals.

  • Formulate a policy for integrating ICT into literacy programmes.
  • Provide adequate infrastructure.
  • Enhance professional development.
  • Develop literacy programmes that are learner-centred.
  • Support the creation of a literacy-conducive environment.
  • Ensure better planning and programme design.

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