2021 International Literacy Day put literacy and digital skills at the heart of COVID-19 recovery

“Education is a right. And, literacy is the foundation of all learning. It is discovery and empowerment. It expands choices and freedoms,” expressed UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, Ms Stefania Giannini in her opening remarks during UNESCO’s online International Conference on ‘Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide’ held on 8-9 September 2021 to celebrate International Literacy Day (ILD).


The two-day online conference brought together more than 600 participants, including Ms Koumbou Boly Barry, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, H.E. Ms Maria Victoria Angulo, Minister of National Education, Colombia, H.E. Mr Tiago Brandão Rodrigues, Minister of Education, Portugal, Mr Mamadou Binaté, Director of Cabinet at the Ministry of National Education and Literacy, Cote d’Ivoire, as well as representatives of governments, development partners, experts, educators and learners around the globe.


Its special session on the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes welcomed the six 2021 Laureates from Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Mexico and South Africa, as well as the Ambassadors of Permanent Delegations of the Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China which support the Prizes as well as Mr John Benseman, the Chair of the 2021 International Jury.


The participants explored how literacy could contribute to building a solid foundation for a human-centred recovery and reflected on what would make policies and programmes more inclusive and relevant for promoting literacy, which in today’s society also includes digital skills. The discussion illuminated the widened digital divide and other forms of inequalities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference was also an opportunity to reimagine literacy teaching and learning in our increasingly digitalized society.


The importance of literacy as part of the right to education was reaffirmed by Ms Giannini, Ms Barry and Mr Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division of Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO. They also recognized literacy and education as an enabler to achieve other rights. Stories of Gogo, a 98 year-old primary school pupil from Kenya and Ms Hassina Sherjan, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Aid Afghanistan for Education, Afghanistan, showed how fulfilling the right to literacy can transform people’s life. Talking about former learners of her literacy programmes, Ms Sherjan shared, “Promoting literacy is one of the solutions to problems in Afghanistan. Education is something no one can take away from them. Literacy is the weapon that they can protect themselves with and demand the rights that they were born with”.


The conference shed light on the need to promote digital skills as part of literacy in today’s increasingly digitalized society. The rapid shift to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a steep rise in technology-enabled literacy learning, which has generated increased demands for digital skills. This was also highlighted by a trend analysis of nominated applications of the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes 2021. Country examples from Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Portugal, and Morocco demonstrated how they have made strides in promoting digital skills and literacy during and before the pandemic, as well as the laureates and literacy programme of Deutsche Volkshochschul-Verband (DVV) for refugees and migrants.


Several participants pointed out the persistent digital divide, for which narrowing the skills gaps is required along with the further improvement of infrastructure, affordability of digital devices, applications, and networks, as well as safety and security measures.


An important message was the centrality of literacy to a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. “We are no longer in emergency mode but rather adapting to a new reality of working, living and of course learning, with unprecedented reliance on technology. We are learning the ropes of resilience to face uncertainty and shape a more sustainable and fair future – one that leaves no one behind. This is only possible by putting people at the center and striking the right relationship with technology”, expressed Ms Giannini.


The conference also showed how working together, across sectors, constituencies, disciplines, and geographical boundaries, can make a difference in tackling multifaceted literacy challenges, with examples of successful multistakeholder partnerships such as the ‘Learning Coin’ programme for marginalized and out-of-school children and young people in Thailand, the European Basic Skills Network (EBSN), and UNESCO’s Global Alliance for Literacy within the Framework of Lifelong Learning.


Regarding the future of literacy learning and teaching, literacy for deep reading as well as analytical and critical thinking was highlighted. Basic literacy skills for merely encode, decode and understand simple texts are not sufficient for people to navigate in life, work and learning in our scientifically and technologically advanced societies. Ms Maryanne Wolf, from the UCLA in the United States of America, stressed the importance of ‘deep reading skills’, for which the understanding and appropriate use of the print and digital mediums, together with empathy, is crucial as they can influence differently learning of a writing system and the brain development.


Based on the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment 2018, Mr Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills of OECD pointed out a shift in a focus in literacy in the past two decades from if one can read and what one can read to how one reads. Less than half of 15-year-olds in OECD countries (47%) are able to distinguish facts from opinions in texts. Noting progress in digital skills development, he illuminated that disparities in access to cultural capital such as books have widened between the privileged and disadvantaged students.


Mr Sobhi Tawil, Director of Future of Learning and Innovation Team at UNESCO stated that future literacy is not only a tool for ‘learning to learn’. To adapt to rapid social transformations and shape our futures that are socially just and environmentally sustainable, it must be a tool for unlearning what perpetuate in our society, such as discrimination, exclusion, and unsustainable behaviours.


Ms Amna Habiba, a representative of the UNESCO Youth Community from Pakistan said that the futures with technology can promise a lot to us, but “most of all, free and accessible learning opportunities that pave pathways to technological empowerment in developing countries”.


Mr Chakroun gave his closing remarks by recalling the critical role that literacy plays for a human-centred recovery. “Any effort towards recovery has to be about human rights, it’s about recognizing the right to education, the right to lifelong learning and the right to literacy”.


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