Can the New Digital Landscape Ensure Universal Literacy?

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Don Steinberg, CEO of World Learning

Literacy continues to be a pressing global challenge: nearly 760 million adults worldwide are illiterate and up to 250 million children are not acquiring basic skills even though half of them are in school. But can new digital technologies finally help crack the literacy problem?

On Tuesday, World Learning posed that very question to participants at its Literacy in a Digital World event in Washington, DC, hosted at the International Republican Institute. Held in honor of UNESCO’s global theme for International Literacy Day 2017, the event brought together participants from a range of organizations working to promote literacy for children, youth, and adults. Together, they reflected on what it means to be literate in increasingly digital societies — as well as the new opportunities and challenges brought on by the digital revolution.

Digital technologies do seem to promise new hope. Educational games have opened new frontiers for personalized learning, there is an entire library of books now available on e-readers, and mobile technologies have made information more accessible than ever. A video shown at the beginning of the event highlighted the possibilities, telling the story of how a woman who was once illiterate now uses Worldreader books on her mobile phone to teach other adults how to read. “Cellphones change how we communicate, how we consume information, and how we educate youth,” Donald Steinberg, CEO of World Learning, observed as he opened the event.

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Patti Constantakis, director of adult learning initiatives at Digital Promise

Yet the promises of digital technology mean little for the world’s most disadvantaged, in the face of a global digital divide. Today, still only 47% of the world’s population has access to the internet. In some regions, such as the Arab States and the Asia-Pacific, the rate of internet access is even lower — and in Sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is a dismal 25%. Even for those who have access, the reading material on the internet is of widely varying quality, while digital devices pose their own problems of use and abuse. “’I read it on the Internet’ is no longer an iron-clad guarantee of legitimacy,” Steinberg said.

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During the Literacy in a Digital World event, participants explored these issues at a series of demo tables presented by panelists Carrie Lewis, a senior technical adviser at Education Develop Center; Patti Constantakis, director of adult learning initiatives at Digital Promise; Jennifer Chen, program officer of the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program at World Learning; and Anthony Bloome, senior education technology specialist at USAID. Participants used laptops, iPads, and mobile phones to learn about the apps and programming these organizations offer.

These panelists then moved on to discuss the implications of an increasingly digital world for improving literacy across all ages, in a follow-up roundtable discussion led by Catherine Honeyman, World Learning’s senior youth workforce specialist.

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Carrie Lewis, senior technical adviser at Education Develop Center

“Technology isn’t a replacement for what happens between teachers and students,” Lewis reminded participants. Highlighting EDC’s work to make local language reading materials and educational games available via apps and tablets, she remarked that selecting quality content has become paramount as digital resources proliferate.

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Jennifer Chen, program officer of the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program at World Learning

Chen further remarked that people who work in international development and literacy “need to be able to adjust to a changing digital landscape to meet job market demand and the needs of young people interacting and learning within a digital world.” One of those needs, she highlighted, is information literacy — the ability to search for reliable information, sort it, and interpret it for specific needs — a skill her team builds as part of the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP), a virtual exchange program that connects students from Iraq and the United States.

Panelists also discussed other opportunities that digital technologies offer for improving learning. Constantakis highlighted the revolutionary possibilities of personalized learning, a part of her work with adult literacy and workforce development at Digital Promise. And Bloome presented All Children Reading’s efforts to use technology to tackle issues such as improving the production and distribution of reading materials, and making them more accessible to disabled populations.

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Sakil Malik, vice president of Global Development at World Learning

Ultimately, too, educators and parents alike are responsible for helping children build the multiple literacies they need to interact in today’s — and tomorrow’s — digital world. “We have a lot more to do to prepare the workforce for the 21st century,” said Sakil Malik, vice president of Global Development at World Learning and former director of the Global Reading Network, in his closing remarks. “Children who are in school now, need to be prepared for new frontiers of work and life that we can barely imagine today. We are in this together, so let’s keep up the spirit and ensure that learners get what they need to thrive and excel.”

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