ICTs and Literacy (the old fashioned kind)


This page in:

lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am
lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am

The Library of Congress recently announced a set of literacy awards to recognize and honor pioneering efforts in the United States and around the world. That's all well and good, you might say, literacy is certainly a worthy cause, but what does this have to do with ICT use in education in developing countries, the topic explored on the EduTech blog? Potentially a lot.

Much is made these days of the need to foster the development of so-called '21st century skills'. Indeed, for the past few years I have sat through few presentations where this particular three word phrase has not been mentioned prominently at some point. Reasonable people may disagree about what these skills are, exactly (but there are lots of ideas), and/or about some of the groups promoting related discussions and initiatives. Whatever one's opinion on such things may be, however, there is no denying that ICTs -- and the ability to use ICTs (productively, effectively) -- are often prominently considered in many related conversations and advocacy efforts, which often also highlight the increasing importance of the acquisition of so-called 'new literacy' skills (variously defined, but often related to the use of ICTs in ways integral and tangential: computer literacy, media literacy, etc.) to ways of life that are increasingly impacted by the emergence of new information and communication technologies.

What it means to be 'literate' in 2013 may be different than it was in 1913 or 1963 (and it will perhaps be different still in 2063). That said, there is little argument that, whatever the year, and wherever you are, basic literacy skills are fundamental to one's education and ability to navigate successfully through life.

What do we know about the use of ICTs
to help promote and develop literacy?

(I am not talking about such things like 'computer literacy', mind you, but rather literacy of the old-fashioned sort: the ability to read and write.)


A number of groups have recently kicked off efforts to explore answers to this question -- and are seeking to highlight innovative approaches to finding such answers.

USAID, AusAid, World Vision and other partners are supporting a so-called 'Grand Challenge for Development' designed to get All Children Reading. As part of this initiative, a number of innovative programs and groups around the world have been awarded grants to explore new approaches to tackling longstanding challenges in this area focused on the provision and use of teaching and learning materials, as well as the collection, use and dissemination of education-related data. Many of the projects funded to date (here's a list) have strong technology components.

USAID and UNESCO (as well as the World Bank and a number of like-minded institutions) participate in the mEducation Alliance, which collectively explores how new classes of mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc.) can be used profitably and productively to help meet a wide variety of educational goals. The Alliance sponsors a working group explicitly looking at emerging innovations to use mobile technologies to promote literacy.

As part of its Mobile Phones and Literacy Project, UNESCO is studying emerging lessons from ten initiatives around the world, especially as they relate to empowering women and girls:

[-] AlfabeTIC (Argentina)
[-] Jokko Initiative (Senegal)
[-] Literacy by Mobile Phone Programme (Pakistan)
[-] MILLEE Project (China, India, Kenya)
[-] Mobile Literacy Program (Afghanistan)
[-] Nokia Life Tools (China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria)
[-] PAJEF Literacy Classes (Senegal)
[-] Pink Telephone Project (Cambodia)
[-] Project ABC – Mobiles 4 Literacy (Niger)
[-] Empowering Women Peacebuilders Project (Iraq)

The theme of how mobile devices can be used as part of literacy efforts was also featured prominently at the recent UNESCO Mobile Learning Week. UNESCO's new policy guidelines for mobile learning [pdf] highlight the fact that "Today mobile technologies are often common even in areas where schools, books and computers are scarce", suggesting that mobile ICT devices may become increasing important tools in literacy efforts in a number of places around the world.

Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) tools like Tangerine are being developed and utilized as part of efforts to use mobile technologies to assess literacy, not only to help develop it.

While ICTs of various sorts are certainly no panacea to longstanding challenges related to illiteracy, aliteracy and low literacy, I would not be too surprised if shortlists of future potential winners of the Library of Congress international literacy prize might not contain some of the projects being recognized and studied today as part of efforts of the groups mentioned here.

global literacy challenges
Graphic courtesy of All Children Reading;
you can view the full ACR infographic
here as a PDF.

It is not only with the widespread availability of mobile phones and other handheld mobile computing devices that ICTs have been relevant to literacy efforts, of course. Organizations like Sesame Workshop (i.e. the Sesame Street folks) have been active for over four decades in exploring how technologies of various sorts, beginning first with television, can be utilized as part of literacy campaigns and activities. More recently, the efforts of PlanetRead to promote literacy through 'same language subtitling' (i.e. subtitling the lyrics of existing film songs or music videos on TV, in the ‘same’ language that they are sung in) have been recognized by a variety of groups for their innovations in supporting literacy efforts at large scale in places like India.

Even if it is (perhaps) too early to consider literacy efforts of groups utilizing mobile technologies as viable contenders, might groups like Sesame Workshop and PlanetRead be candidates for the new Library of Congress Literacy Awards? Perhaps. There are scores of other groups that would be good candidates as well -- please feel do free to nominate individuals, groups and initiative that you consider worthy of special recognition for efforts to promote literacy around the world over on the dedicated page on the Library of Congress web site. The deadline for submitting nominations for the first set of prizes (which total $250,000 annually!) is 15 April. (Disclosure: I serve on a related external advisory group.)

More information about the state of literacy worldwide:

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is responsible for monitoring international literacy targets associated with Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Its literacy statistics are considered the standard for benchmarking progress globally and are featured in diverse reports, such as the EFA Global Monitoring Report, the World Development Indicators and the Human Development Report.

The World Bank draws much of its literacy-related data from UIS.

The Global Partnership for Education has early grade reading as a specific focus area.

You may also be interested in these earlier posts on the EduTech Blog:

[-] Mobile Phones and Literacy in Rural Communities
[-] How (not) to develop ICT literacy in students?
[-] What Sesame Street Can Teach the World Bank
[-] An update on the use of e-readers in Africa

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am") comes from Jean Guillaume Le Roux via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The infographic on global literacy challenges is adapted from a larger graphic [pdf] produced by All Children Reading.


Michael Trucano

Global Lead for Innovation in Education, Sr. Education & Technology Policy Specialist

Diana Sharp
March 19, 2013

My partners at the University of Washington and I recently completed a paper for policy makers in both developed and developing countries on the role of ICT in early-grade literacy success. It's available for download at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, see the blog post from March 7, 2013, "Creating Solutions for Literacy Problems Is Not For the Faint of Heart"

March 20, 2013

Project ABC is covered in the latest issue of Information Technology for Development including a reference to an independent evaluation on its impact which has been found to be effective and sustainable - http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/titd20/current (See under view from practice).

Douglas Costello
March 21, 2013

ICT's do not aid the literacy skills needed for the 21st century. These are the skills that have been crucial to mankind since writing and mathematics were invented and are as relevant today in the 21st century. Without those literacy skills then we are little better a trained chimpanzee who performs certain actions but has little or no comprehension of what or why.

Research into how human memory functions has shown that our capacity to store information and manipulate it within our brain is impressively large in capacity and that it does not function in the manner that we have developed memory in ICT. The human brain does not have a write once and it's stored for good memory it requires us to put into and pull out and restore the information a number of time to ensure retention (savants and high performing aspbergers excepted) and accuracy and then it requires reuse at intervals to ensure accuracy and speed of recall.

The assumption seems to be that inserting ICT into the education process will generate large gains in literacy skills. In fact it is becoming the opposite and potentially rather than being an aid, the methods of implementation ensure that it will always fail to achieve the heady potential its advocates fantasise about.

I think voices such as Michael Trucano's should be listened to with far greater attention to avoid wastage and lost opportunities.