Literacy in a Digital World: Whys and Hows

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Digital literacy means the use of technologies and digital devices to enhance knowledge and skills of any person. Ravindra Yatagiri, Vice President, e-Learning and Dr Alka Dwivedi, Associate Director, e-learning, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES) explores current scenario and scope of digital literacy in India for Elets News Network (ENN).

The world in 21st century is no longer analogous. It has become digital, or one can say digitally beautiful. Now almost all forms of content whether text or audio or video is either digitised or is about to get digitized, and such digital content can be moved from one point on the globe to the other in a matter of seconds. This is no less a revolution. Thanks to World Wide Web and Internet!

In this digital world the term ‘Literacy’ has acquired an added dimension. It is workable definition has irreversibly expanded to incorporate ‘the ability to use IT based systems and the ability to use software and web-based applications on computers or similar electronic devices’.

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But then, there is a contrasting narrative going on silently in the background. At one end the world moves with such dizzying speed and at the other end there are millions of our brethrens, who are stuck in misery, poverty and are leading undignified lives. They have no idea where the world is going and they find themselves helpless in getting out of their situation because their illiteracy will not allow them to improve their lot. Neither will it let them get in touch with today’s modern world.

On hindsight, the literacy rate in India is still only 76%. It implies that more than 31 million people are still deprived of basic literacy skills, who cannot read or write any language. Their employment avenues are limited to manual labour or blue collared jobs.

Even those who are able to acquire some level of education bear the brunt of crumbling education system. They are barely better off than the illiterates, as testified by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores. The last time Indian students participated in this global assessment organized by Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) we realized that the scores on reading, mathematics and science, of our 15 year olds were more than their counterparts from Kyrgyzstan. The rest of the 71 participant countries were better off than India, in terms of the learning skills of their students.

This is the scenario after seven long decades of democratic rule in the country. All these years, while we were focusing on ‘ garibi hatao’ or ‘ mandals and kamandals’ we overlooked the fact that Science and Technology was busy reshaping the world we are a part of. Now the digital bus has arrived and it is time to board it. Everything is getting digitised whether it is information systems or communication channels or governance or education or commerce.

In this digital world the term ‘Literacy’ has acquired an added dimension. It is workable definition has irreversibly expanded to incorporate ‘the ability to use IT based systems and the ability to use software and web-based applications on computers or similar electronic devices’.

Bill Gates once observed that technology applied to an efficient operation will magnify efficiency and technology applied to inefficient process will magnify the inefficiency. Illiteracy creates a lot of misery for the individual and the society. And as technology is getting progressively weaved into the socio-economic fabric of the society the debilitating impact of illiteracy is magnified manifold.

Our current position is amply clear to us and we also know what future awaits us if we stand here any longer. We need to move and move fast enough to stop the demographic advantage turning into demographic disaster.

To kick start the efforts the government needs to take into account the digital version of illiteracy and work towards eradicating it with a sense of responsibility and urgency.

Today a learner needs to be given not only skills to read and write but also the skills to sustain in a digital world.  Digitization is bringing incremental changes in the way citizens interact with the state and its agencies and also in the way they interact with each other. All changes are not smooth and neatly planned. When a sudden demonetisation takes place the ones who can understand and appreciate the change and march along are the ones who are literate as well as have an exposure to digital way of things.

This possibly, can be done by employing a two pronged strategy. At one Level the government can strengthen the existing system. It can work towards increasing student enrollment ratios, by increased budgetary allocation, improved infrastructure, supportive policy framework, removal of bureaucratic hurdles and creating, implementing and monitoring academic administrative systems.

At another level the government can inject the digital component into the system. It can harness the power of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) to improve the quality of education. Recently, two education projects viz. National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) and ‘Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds’ (Swayam) have given a lot of hope in higher education space. Similar initiatives can be taken for primary and adult education. The process has to start by training the trainers. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can be developed by established Institutions and educationists. These can be used in teachers’ training in a traditional format, blended mode, or even in virtual classes. Objective is to provide quality training to large number of teachers in a short span of time. Using ICT in ‘Training the Trainer’ program will also initiate the teachers into digital teaching.

Next step in the process is to replicate the same model to teach students. The objective is also quite similar, which is to provide quality education to large number of students and also make them familiar with technology.

The whole idea rest upon the firm resolve of the government to invest sufficiently in setting up the required infrastructure. If necessary, PPP (Public Private Participation) model can also be explored for the purpose.

The ubiquitous mobile phones and smartphones have shown that people are quick to adapt to technology if it is within their reach and serves their purpose. So one can be sure that if government acts with genuine intentions, not only literacy levels will catch up but PISA scores will also improve, showing impact on both quantity and quality front.

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