UNESCO Chairs gather for knowledge sharing and collaboration ahead of September’s International Literacy Day

On 10 June 2021, UNESCO organized an online meeting with nine UNESCO Chairs and one observer prior to this year’s International Literacy Day (ILD), which will focus on “The right to literacy in times of COVID: the contribution of digital literacy and distance learning programmes”. Among the 31 participants were UNESCO Chairs in literacy, lifelong learning, and skills development, and ICT and education from universities in Belarus, China, Cyprus, France, , the Netherlands, Uganda, Ukraine, USA, and the UK.


This was the first time such a meeting with UNESCO Chairs was organized to enhance cooperation between the Organization and UNESCO Chairs for the promotion of literacy in the lead up to ILD 2021 and beyond. Participants were introduced to UNESCO’s work on literacy, identified key issues to be addressed through the ILD celebrations, and explored potential areas for future collaboration. The meeting facilitated interaction between the chairs, resulting in the UNESCO Chair in Literacies, Green Skilling and Capacity Development for Sustainable Communities in Africa, and the UNESCO Chair in Knowledge Transfer for Sustainable Development supported by ICTs being connected for possible collaboration in Uganda.


UNESCO’s work in related areas


In the Opening Session, Mr. Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO Education Sector (ED/PLS), highlighted the importance of digital learning in today’s world, and the need to understand the interplay between literacy and digital skills: literacy is required for acquiring digital skills, while literacy without digital skills is no longer sufficient.


Mr. Chakroun invited UNESCO Chairs’ contribution to ILD and to implement the UNESCO Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy 2020-2025. Noting how youth and adult literacy was not always prioritised in national COVID-19 responses, Mr. David Atchoarena, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) reiterated that literacy is at the core of lifelong learning and essential to the right to education.


Mr. Atchoarena encapsulated the world as an extensive laboratory for the massuse of digital technology in education and highlighted both benefits and risks of this, including amplifying inequalities and exclusion, which must guide our endeavours for shaping future education.


Mr. Sobhi Tawil, Director, Future of Learning and Innovation Team (ED/FLI), UNESCO, which hosts the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme, introduced UNESCO’s normative work in developing an international declaration of connectivity and technology in support of the right to education, as well as the right to information and knowledge more broadly. Through the Futures of Education initiative, UNESCO will launch a report of the International Commission in November and continue to catalyse public debates and research on futures of learning. Mr. Tawil stressed the importance of interdisciplinary research, which is key to addressing education and development challenges ahead.


Ms. Mari Yasunaga, Programme Specialist, Section of Youth, Literacy and Skills Development, ED/PLS, UNESCO and Ms. Rakhat Zholdoshalieva, Team Policy Support and Capacity Development Manager at the UIL, provided an overview of UNESCO’s activities in youth and adult literacy at a global level. Ms. Sarah El Attar, Education Programme Coordinator at UNESCO Kabul, then detailed UNESCO’s literacy work in Afghanistan.


Key questions for promoting distance literacy learning in a digital world through effective, equitable, and inclusive learning


The following session centred on how to harness the potential of technology for distance literacy learning. Mr. Dan Wagner, Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, United States of America (UNESCO Chair in Learning and Literacy) emphasised that skill requirements had changed over time, and digital skills and literacy are bound together in today’s world.


Two key questions were: Does digital technology accelerate or constrain literacy learning? What are the target groups, with regard to challenges faced by non-literate youth and adults such as limited connectivity and language issues? On the issue of access and quality, Mr. Wagner said: “Should access be priority, or quality of instruction? It is not enough to provide learners with digital devices.”


Another dilemma emphasised was equity, raising the question of whether we opt for providing digital learning opportunities to some with connectivity and electricity, or if we should reach out to more people.


“Digitalization is a huge motivation for many learners, but we must pay attention to risks and equity,” said Mr. Wagner, reemphasising the need for appropriate policies and interventions to bridge formal education and less-resourced adult and non-formal education.


Ms. Nikleia Eteokleous, Associate Professor of Education at Frederick University in Cyprus and UNESCO Chair in Lifelong Learning and Adult Education, highlighted three aspects to be considered for successful online education for youth and adults: communication and interaction between and among, instructor and learners,; educational materials corresponding to the principles of online and blended learning; and technological tools and applications for digital learning.


“During the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching and learning practices have dramatically altered. We need to realize what we have gained and must take one step further with the use of technology,” said Ms. Eteokleous and suggested ten recommendations for the use of technology in education, including enhancing pedagogical frameworks, materials, assessment methods and quality assurance mechanisms for distance learning, and the need to support educators who play the crucial role.


Potential areas for future collaboration


The final session reflected on potential areas for future collaboration. Ms Inga Nichanian, Senior Programme Assistant, ED/FLI, introduced York University’s (Canada) video, ‘UNESCO Chair in 3 minutes: UNESCO Chair in Reorienting Education towards Sustainability’. Subsequently, Mr Willy Ngaka, Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Adult and Community Education, Makerere University, Uganda (UNESCO Chair in ‘Literacies, Green Skilling, and Capacity Development for Sustainable Communities in Africa), explained how the Chair intends to develop a multi-stakeholder platform for research and capacity development that bridges multiple areas – literacy and digital skills, education for sustainable development, learning of refugees.


Mr. Ngaka stressed the importance of regional and international cooperation, and engaging communities. He also elucidated the concept of ‘green skilling’ which employs community knowledge and abilities to develop and sustain a resource efficient society. He argued that in times of Covid-19 we must do more with less and see the recovery as an opportunity to bring together social, community, and ecological goals.


The meeting concluded with closing remarks from Mr Hiromichi Katayama, Chief at the Section of Youth, Literacy, and Skills Development at UNESCO, who thanked participants for their contributions. Noting that of 40 UNESCO chairs in literacy, lifelong learning, skills development, and ICT and education, only about 40 per cent are outside Europe and North America.


He reiterated the importance of cognitive diversity and the need to expand partnerships with universities across the world for continued collaboration with UNESCO Chairs towards ILD2021 and in the Covid-19 recovery phase.


The following UNESCO Chairs participated in the meeting


Launched in 1992, UNESCO’s UNITWIN programme  promotes international cooperation and networking between universities and currently involves about 840 institutions in 114 countries in UNESCO’s field of competence.


Of about 40 UNESCO Chairs literacy, lifelong learning, skills development and ICT and education, the following Chairs participated in the meeting: UNESCO Chair on Vocational Education in the Sphere of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) of Persons with Special Needs, Belarus, UNESCO Chair in Regional Education Development and Lifelong Learning, China, UNESCO Chair on Lifelong Learning and Adult Education, Cyprus, UNESCO Chair in Digital anthropology, Panthéon Sorbonne University, France, UNESCO chair in Lifelong learning, youth, and work in the Netherlands, UNESCO Chair in ‘Literacies, Green Skilling and Capacity Development for Sustainable Communities in Africa’ in Uganda, University of Pennsylvania Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in Learning and Literacy in the USA, UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation in the UK, and UNESCO Chair in New Information Technologies in Education for All in Ukraine, as well as a candidate of UNESCO Chair in Global Adult Education in Malta (observer).