Literacy for a human-centered recovery: will narrowing the digital divide do the trick?

Literacy for a human-centered recovery: will narrowing the digital divide do the trick?

This year’s International Literacy Day (ILD) 2021 is celebrated under the theme “Literacy for a human-centered recovery: Narrowing the digital divide”.

Literacy is at the core of SDG4

Literacy is at the core of education and lifelong learning as defined by the Sustainable Development Goal 4. However, according to UNESCO at least 773 million young people and adults are lacking basic literacy skills today.

Non-Literate people are disproportionately affected by the COVID- 19 crisis

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 1.5 billion learners had their education stopped or interrupted. Education systems continue to face a devastating crisis, while the challenges around public financing and the ever-increasing pressure on resources for public services are resulting in less prioritisation of education, including literacy programmes.

This unprecedented crisis has also deepened pre-existing inequalities, disproportionately affecting non-literate young people and adults. It is undeniable that the rapid shift to distance learning forced by the pandemic has deepened the exclusion of many especially vulnerable communities, including children with disabilities. Disparities in terms of connectivity, infrastructure, and the ability to engage with technology, as well as access to other services such electricity are a contributing factor to the deepening of inequalities.

Bridging the digital gap is, of course, important. Literacy teaching and learning and the role of educators do need to be re-imagined in the post-COVID- 19 world. Many in the education sector ask: How do we bridge the digital gap? How do we ensure equitable and inclusive access to technology-enabled literacy learning? And yes, these questions are key, but are they the central ones? Can access to technology be the motor of a “human -centered recovery”?

Tackling the root causes of educational marginalisation

Literacy learning opportunities were not equally distributed prior to the pandemic. One could argue that we are selling ourselves short by thinking that access to the internet will solve this massive injustice. How realistic is it to equip learners living in rural areas with smartphones and connectivity, for example, when we have failed to give them access to a classroom, a textbook, and a trained teacher in the past?

A human-centered recovery should inevitably be focused on addressing the root causes of educational marginalization and illiteracy, many of which are also the root causes of the digital divide and the gross inequality in our world. To take on and dismantle the systems of discrimination and domination that are responsible for educational marginalisation and illiteracy, we need to be incredibly intentional and think through things intersectionally. Intersectionality[1] demands us to transcend the cognitive but lazy comfortability of binary thinking, which will of course require enormous efforts within and outside the education sector. In the former case, this means going back to the basics: guarantee free, quality, public decolonial education for all. All of this requires adequate education financing.

More and Better Financing for Education

With the One Billion Voices for Education Campaign, the Global Campaign for Education has pushed for improved and increased public financing for education by uniting behind the campaign Call to Action calling on states to:

  1. Increase state funding for education to 20% of public expenditure.
  2. Increase their tax base in order to increase resources, working towards a minimum tax-to-GDP ratio of 20%.
  3. Enable urgent debt cancellation for the least developed countries; and Debt alleviation for middle and upper-middle-income countries.
  4. Ensure inclusive educational systems and institutions.
  5. Provide free quality education for all and end the trend towards the privatization and commercialization of education.
  6. Improve the quality of teaching through adequate recruitment, remuneration and continued teacher training.
  7. Listen and respond to the voices of those affected. Space must be allowed for individuals and civil society to speak up.
  8. Developed countries must continue to work towards the goal of 0.7% overseas aid, with 20% of this spent on education, and increasing their contributions to the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait.

Narrowing the digital divide is an urgent and crucial challenge. We do, however, need to ensure that we also address previous basic (and huge) inequalities that have prevented the fundamental right to education to be fulfilled for all, particularly in emergency contexts. Both structural changes of the education systems and narrowing the digital divide require political will and investment. And they can’t wait too long.

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[1] The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”.