International Literacy Day – Working Towards a Digitally Literate World

Zoe Dean

International Literacy Day – What is it? And Why is it Important?

In 1996, the 8th of September was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO to raise awareness about the critical role literacy plays to enable social and human development. Acquiring and developing literacy skills is crucial to access education, better working opportunities, healthcare, and other national services. As such literacy provides the key to access a wide variety of tools that can help individuals to improve their lives.

The rapid development of technology has added another layer to literacy and the skills required to obtain it. With many national services moving to online platforms, literacy now involves more than the conventional concepts of reading and writing. Identification, interpretation, and communication across dynamic and information-rich digital networks are now key components of what it means to be fully literate.

Covid-19 has only quickened this trend, with many schools and education courses having moved online for extended periods over the last 18 months. Those who were already struggling to access education and technology have, in many cases, fallen further behind, exacerbating existing inequalities. 

UNESCO has been at the global forefront of literacy efforts since 1946 and continues to further equitable access to the literacy skills needed for individuals to improve their lives.  This year’s International Literacy Day 2021 reflects on the digital inequalities the current pandemic has highlighted, emphasising the importance of digital skills for human-centred recovery.

Unequal Access to Digital Skills Results in Social Exclusion

Historically there has been sustained and impressive progress in conventional literacy skills. Over the last 65 years literacy worldwide has increased by 4% every 5 years consistently. In 2015 over 86% of the world’s population were recorded as fully literate, a vast improvement to the 42% global literacy rate as recorded in 1960 (WorldInData, 2021). However, this still means that over 773 million adults worldwide lack basic literacy skills today (UNESCO, 2020) proving that substantial challenges still remain. In the world’s poorest countries, basic literacy is still low inhibiting the development needed. Chad has a literacy rate of 22.3% and Niger around 35% (UNESCO, 2016), vastly below the global average.

Acquiring the necessary data needed to fully understand the digital aspect of literacy is also proving to be a challenge. The formulation of a standardised method to measure and record Digital Literacy rates is still in the beginning stages with many countries not able to supply data in this area. Gathering relevant and accurate measurements on a global scale will therefore likely be a long process meaning it might be some years before the scale of digital illiteracy is fully grasped.

What is well known is that digital technology can democratise tools, education, and services that can propel people out of poverty. It is also becoming increasingly evident the rapid digital acceleration has also intensified social exclusion within already marginalised groups. Here a disproportionate percentage of the offline and digitally illiterate population is constituted of those already marginalised by society. Women, poor indigenous and rural populations are more likely to be digitally illiterate and therefore also have reduced access to the tools they need to improve their lives.

The Global and National Organisations working towards Digital Literacy

‘Leaving no one behind means leaving no one offline’ (UN, 2021) and many organisations around the world are already working towards supporting individuals towards digital fluency. Arataki Systems in partnership with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa is a Māori Tech company that created the Kanorau Digital program. This program provides free lessons in digital skills for Māori and Pasifika communities aiming to close the digital divide in New Zealand. READ Global creates and provides READ centres in hard-to-reach rural areas within countries such as Bhutan, Nepal, and India. READ centres not only provide access to books but also to ICT facilities and digital learning courses. The World Bank in partnership with the EQUALS Global Partnership’s Access Coalition and the GSMA is also currently piloting different modes of delivering digital skills to women in Rwanda, Uganda, and Nigeria. The aim is to create appropriate digital training systems and thereby facilitate greater social inclusion for women and other marginalised groups.

As literacy is increasingly constitutive of digital literacy, global and national organisations must work towards providing digital skills, technology, and learning to marginalised groups. Despite the current lack of data, many organisations have already grasped the importance of digital literacy and are implementing programs to obtain this globally.


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