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Education

Battle for literacy goes digital

World Literacy Day is a reminder that at least one in 10 people can't read or write in developing countries as well as in industrialized nations. But even basic literacy isn't enough in the Internet age.

DW: What is the main factor keeping people from learning how to read and write?

Venkata Subbarao Ilapavuluri: There are a number of factors. Today there are roughly 774 million people who aren't able to read or write. One reason why we do have this backlog is because of relative neglect of this basic skill. It's also connected to the overall educational system of the country. Access to schooling is one important factor.

Second is the importance of creating literate environments: How many literate people are there, how many books and newspapers are available? There are challenges in insuring that all children have basic education. But also relative neglect in this as a key driver in the economy has also resulted in a huge backlog over the years.

So if these 774 million people could read and write, what would that mean for economic development in their countries?

Many countries have made progress in literacy. There is also a concomitant improvement in their economic levels, apart from the social benefits. In countries that have made progress and improved literacy rates - like Thailand, Philippines, or Indonesia now, or China - they have made rapid strides in terms of their own economic development, and you see that reflected in not only gross domestic product figures, but also in terms of social or health indicators. They show that literacy is the foundational skill. So, you can view literacy from a number of angles: It's a basic human right that needs to be protected.

But there's also the instrumental value of literacy - how does it help in enlarging the livelihood options to generate greater wealth, add value to one's own quality of life, and also the communities around the person.

A man reads a newspaper whilst sitting in his tricycle on a street in Shanghai on January 9, 2013 (Peter Parks)

Literacy has improved in many Asian countries

It seems like now that we're living in a world of technology, it must be even more important for people to be able to use all these devices, like mobile phones and so on.

Yes, absolutely. We do have the modern mode of technology becoming affordable and accessible. Having access to these technologies makes it easier than earlier to reach more populations through these devices. But at the same time, it poses a challenge in terms of the new skill sets which are required. Digital literacy and e-literacy are also now becoming important, and we can no longer talk of merely reading and writing and numeracy as enough skills in the 21st century. There are a number of other competencies required.

We are also looking at challenges of climate change. We are looking at a whole lot of other changes in these evolving societies now. It's more important to recognize that while basic literacy is still important, it's not enough. And while we still need literacy programs, we need to build in these competencies as well.

Does that also mean that technology can make it easier to teach people, for example in remote areas, to become literate, be able to read and write and use these devices?

Literacy classroom in Münster (Photo: Friso Gentsch)

Many people don't learn to read and write until later in life

Absolutely. There are many devices - mobile phones, tablets, PCs - now being used to insure that people get basic literacy skills. There are a computer programs in a number of countries which are using handheld devices for imparting the skills. Farmers in many parts of the world - in India, in sub-Saharan Africa - are using these to transmit important messages. Transmission of text through these devices is a very powerful way of imparting literacy. In Pakistan, we have a mobile phone literacy program using technology to enable rural people to access more information and improve their own livelihood options.

Typically, someone who cannot read or write lives in a part of the developing world, or emerging economies, like India or Brazil, or in Africa. But there are also many people who cannot read and write in developed countries. In Europe, there are more than 70 million who are illiterate. How is that possible?

This is where we come into the concept of viewing literacy as a continuum, starting with no or low literacy, to more advanced levels of literacy. In the European context, a high-level group that recently released a report said that one in five youths in Europe lacks adequate functional literacy. Over the years and in the recent past, work has been changing. The educational systems have to adapt to these new realities.

A girl writes a text on a mobile phone (Photo: Armin Weigel)

Literacy also means being able to use digital tools

In many of the countries, even though there are good basic education systems, the changing world of work demands new competencies. They have the basic ability to read and write, but how effectively are they able to navigate these new demands that are coming from the workplace? That's why the literacy challenge is not confined to being a problem in developing countries and countries in transition, but in developed countries as well.

We've seen educational budgets all over the world dwindle since the economic crisis. Do you think there will be universal literacy in the world anytime soon?

We must recognize that we have been moving steadily toward a more literate world. In 1990, for instance, the literacy rate was about 76 percent. Today, it is 84 percent. That's not a small achievement. We are looking at something beyond that. It is quite possible that we would be able to make our world more literate than it is today.

Venkata Subbarao Ilapavuluri heads the literacy section at the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. The organization has dedicated itself largely to improving literacy rates in the world over the past six decades.

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