Bridging the Digital Divide | Daily News

Bridging the Digital Divide

Sri Lanka’s human development indices are mostly on par with those of developed countries. Sri Lanka has done really well in terms of education, with compulsory schooling for all children up to the end of secondary school. Education is also completely free right up to university level, along with healthcare. There is also no discrimination against girls and women when it comes to education, unlike in many other developing countries. The result of these endeavours has been a literacy rate of over 90 percent among children and adults, a rarity in the developing world.

This is an achievement we can be proud of as we celebrate the International Literacy Day (ILD) today. September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO in 1966 to remind the international community of the importance of literacy for individuals, communities and societies, and the need for intensified efforts towards more literate societies.

But unexpected events can disrupt our plans for education and literacy improvement. The prevailing Covid-19 crisis has disrupted the learning of children, young people and adults on an unprecedented scale, here and worldwide. It has also magnified the pre-existing inequalities in access to meaningful literacy learning opportunities, disproportionally affecting 773 million non-literate young people and adults worldwide. Another 617 million children and adolescents worldwide are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Moreover, during the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed disrupting the education of 62.3 percent of the world’s school-age population. In some countries including Sri Lanka, schools are still closed. In any case, youth and adult literacy were absent in many initial national response plans, while numerous literacy programmes have been forced to halt their usual modes of operation.

In fact, the pandemic was a reminder of the critical importance of literacy. Beyond its intrinsic importance as part of the right to education, literacy empowers individuals and improves their lives by expanding their capabilities to choose a kind of life they can value. It is also a driver for sustainable development. Literacy is an integral part of education and lifelong learning premised on humanism as defined by the Sustainable Development Goal 4. Literacy, therefore, is central to a human-centred recovery from the Covid-19 crisis that gives priority to the resumption of education including in-person learning.

Efforts have been made to find alternative ways to ensure the continuity of learning, including distance learning, often in combination with in-person learning. Access to literacy and other educational opportunities, however, has not been evenly distributed. The rapid shift to distance learning also highlighted the persistent ‘digital divide’ in terms of devices, connectivity, infrastructure, and the ability to engage with technology, as well as disparities in other services such as access to electricity, which has limited the learning options. It is useless having a smartphone without a way to recharge it, after all.

Here in Sri Lanka, many underprivileged families cannot afford to buy smartphones and laptops and some areas do not get proper 4G or even 3G signals. This has forced children to go to tree tops, jungles and mountains to get a good signal. On top of this, a teachers’ strike over long-running salary demands has almost completely stopped online teaching, further endangering the education of children who have now gone without school for nearly 18 months. It is the fervent hope of all those concerned that this issue could be resolved amicably to resume education within the next few months.     

Literacy is not only about the ability to read per se. It is an entire life skill in itself. And now, amidst the pandemic, computer literacy (also called digital skills) has also come to the fore as seen by the acute need for online teaching and learning. The pandemic has also shown the importance of medical literacy, as those armed with the correct health information have a chance of evading the virus. Those without access to proper medical information on Covid-19, for example about the vaccines, may even face a life-threatening situation.       

ILD 2021 will thus be celebrated under the theme “Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide”. ILD 2021 will explore how literacy can contribute to building a solid foundation for a human-centred recovery, with a special focus on the interplay of literacy and digital skills required by non-literate youth and adults. It will also explore what makes technology-enabled literacy learning inclusive and meaningful so that no one is left behind. By doing so, ILD2021 will be an opportunity to reimagine future literacy teaching and learning and all other forms of education, within and beyond the context of the pandemic.

It is also vital that Governments around the world explore ways and means of bridging the Digital Divide. In Sri Lanka, prospective university students can already get a laptop loan, which can be repaid after getting a job following their graduation. The State will have to launch more such initiatives for younger students too as digital learning goes mainstream in the classroom and out of it. Literacy, in all its manifestations, must start from the early days of childhood.

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