Beyond 2011: ITC and Literacy

This post will try to map out how ICT's in education, particularly in developing countries have moved forward in 2011. I will also try to take a look forward towards some events coming up in 2012 in these overlapping worlds and look at why areas such as adult education and literacy deserve more attention in the future.

If there was a technological zodiac, 2010 would have been the year of the I-pad and the Smartphone. In contrast 2011 would probably have been the year of social media. Bloggers and activists have had a crucial impact on events around the world and a host of businesses and social media start-ups have now started to grow teeth and get serious. Consider the Arab Spring or student uprisings all over Europe for example and the rise of companies like Group-On. For an overview of this (with stats and pictures) see Jeff bull's blog "10 Things You Must Know about the State of Social Media in 2011" or also David Olson's blog post "Top Ten Global Development Communications Stories of 2011" here.

A lot of new ideas are moving towards more mainstream business and education is one area for this. For example much has happened in the world of crowdsourcing including ideas for how it will impact on education. This article from Reuters in December 2011 explains how some new start-up companies are looking to make money by tapping teachers' hands-on experience for what works in the classroom. Crowdsourcing is likely to have an big impact on education, take for example this TED talk on crowdsourcing the development of a global human syllabus for learning online. For a general overview particularly of some of the involvement of the private sector in 2011 check out "How the Internet Revolutionised Education in 2011" here or this crowdsourcing industry infographic.

The crowdsourcing industry (or at least Enterprise Crowdsourcing) has blasted off and new global companies are tapping into social media and marketing. Many of these start-ups actually date back a few years now but are beginning to 'come of age' and crowdsourcing for one is becoming an industry whether people like it or not. This graph from Mark Swaeffer's blog shows that the market demand for crowd-sourced work quintupled in 2010 & almost quadrupled in 2011.

In 2011 commercial and public interest in mobile technology and in tablet devices has grown exponentially. This has also occured in the field of development and ICT and all kinds of applications for mobile technology for increasing the accountability of public services in developing countries are sprouting up. A recent example are services to check the authenticity of drugs at point of sale in Africa (see this article by the Economist "Mobile Services in Poor Countries - Not Just Talk" or also check out Roxanna Samii's blog here to follow discussions around some similar topics in ITC for Development). The Economist also has a 2012 update on how Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple will be fighting it out for market dominance in different areas of the rising smartphone and tablet market, with some insights into their use in developing countries.

Education is taking big steps into this world. Although innovations constantly set the pace in terms of what is possible, the advent and impact of new technology is now part of mainstream educational debates. Discussions about how and where technology is used in schools and outside of learning centres of all kinds are currently ongoing, for example with schools in Australia setting out policies on the use of Facebook for teachers. This kind of discussion and the impact of technology on pedagogy is on the tips of teacher's tongues in schools all over the world. For fascinating coverage of some of these issues and emerging practices in e-learning see Mark Pegrum's blog here and presentations here or his recent book 'From Blogs to Bombs'

Mobile learning has become big business and along with e-learning corporations, people are going beyond simply saying 'we need an app for that' to thinking about having a 'mobile learning strategy'. Academic courses on e-learning are popping up along with academic research and books on this topic. For example here is a review of 40 e-learning articles - the first of 15 chapters of a recent book looking at specific applications in health, language learning, speech therapy and higher and distance education in developed countries (see Stevens, D. and A. Kitchenham, An Analysis of Mobile Learning in Education, Business, and Medicine. Models for Interdisciplinary Mobile Learning: Delivering Information to Students, 2011.)

In October 2012 the 11th World Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning, mLearn will push further the theory and practice of learning and mobility in converging technological environments. For more information also see the website of The International Association for Mobile Learning (IAmLearn) which has a link to presentations and resources from over the last 10 years. Also for a wider academic glance at the field of ICT4DEV and education also check this special issue on ICT Education in Development in the Information Technology for Development Journal, Volume 16, Issue 3, from 2010 here.

It is not for nothing that mobile technology gets referred to as the 21st century fishing rod. International organisations and governments are catching up with businesses and individuals who are making possible what millions of teenagers with handheld computers or mobile phones already know is right in front of them. In 2011 the Indian Ministry for Human Resource Development announced the launch of a new low cost ($35) educational tablet: the Aakash. The government of Thailand is also introducing a similar tablet at secondary level. Governments have difficulty however, as these investments (for example read here about tablets in Thailand) are often quite controversial. Often the question that seems apparent with mobile technology is that now it has arrived - what do we do with it ?

International organisations are moving towards looking the implications of these changes on a global scale, even if for now there may be many fragmented discussions about what may be possible. More debates around ITC for development goals for education and educational debates that refuse to separate educational realities and technological ones are likely to be around the corner.

In the background these days you can imagine people asking themselves questions like; what percentage of the world should have internet access by 2020? Or in what sense can we talk about the right to access technology in the future? These topics have been addressed in the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 and 2005. To check out where this is leading have a look at the WSIS Forum 2012 which will take place in May in Geneva or UNESCO's Edu Tech Debate and the UNESCO Information For All program. Also taking place soon if you wish to learn more about this is the Learning Without Frontiers event in London (Jan 25th and 26th) which is here.

One of the overarching questions is to what extent can we consider internet access and computer literacy as being the great knowledge divide of the future - and what does this mean for education and development in general? If it is any indication of how important these questions are becoming then check out the growth in the number of WSIS stocktaking members in 2011 below.

Technology is already changing how people live and impacting on social development. The potential opportunities, benefits and impact on education in developing countries is very wide. This includes everything from the creation of virtual universities to HIV public health campaigns via mobile text messages. However, because of this breadth, it is easy to spin off into discussions that are too broad and that do not address particular educational themes. So for now just consider one area that these technological changes may impact, which is adult literacy and literacy teaching in developing countries.

Why choose this focus? Well I think because both adult literacy and ICT for education suffer from either being overlooked or being sidelined as specialist areas far too often. Many will agree that the wide gap between the ICT haves and have-nots and the digital divide is an important issue and ICT access and literacy are both important forms of empowerment in a similar way that literacy is. But that is where the debate often tends to end, although adult literacy studies have great depth in terms of the background of theory and debate. In both areas however, too often it is only when they can no longer be overlooked that people start to pay attention to new ground breaking approaches or innovations.

What about the notion of 'basic education' and literacy in the future. As we approach 2015 and the targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) the objectives and indicators for adult literacy may start to look a bit out-of-date. Once we have reached targets set out for literacy defined as 'being able to write or read a sentence with understanding' in 2015 where will we be standing in terms of the brave new world of ICT literacy and access to information?

It is worth taking a step back at this point - approaches to adult literacy have a long history. The concept of literacy has been defined and redefined, and it is worth considering how both the meaning of 'literacy' and different approaches towards teaching it have changed over time. Ideas about literacy make an interesting perspective on how changes to how people work, interact and communicate impact on education. Looking at how multilateral organisations have constructed ideas and approaches to literacy in development discourse over the last 50 years gives some interesting insights into this. For more on this topic, here is my own attempt at a review of some of the challenges that UNESCO has faced in defining literacy since the 1950's as the peak body and leading global organisation responsible for advocacy around literacy and for setting these kinds of educational and intellectual standards. World Bank has also published this study of the history of literacy teaching approaches which is very informative and worthy of a read if you are interested in this area.

It seems to me at least that too often adult literacy has suffered from a sort of constant 'big elephant' syndrome, in fact the same might be said for ITC education in the past. To make a sweeping generalisation, you could say that all too often governments and international organisations have either failed to take realistic stances on adult literacy (and ITC in education) or have effectively come to exclude them altogether from the wider debate on education, even though both are fundamental areas that are involved (and may increasingly be involved)  in many forms of learning in all kind of situations. In order to correct this, for many years UNESCO has been the leading advocate on the international stage for literacy.

One fact contributing to this 'silent treatment' is that development goals have shifted their direct focus in relation to adult literacy since the 1990's for a number of reasons. Furthermore, adult literacy goals have tended to become simply inferred within other goals for education. The original Education For All goals proposed in Jomtiem in the 1990's referred to goals for basic education as including adult literacy. In 2000 adult literacy was included as a clear goal (Goal 4) although the target was rather arbitrarily to increase adult literacy by 50% by 2015. Although this highlighted the importance of adult literacy, it did not target efforts towards the most marginalised - a 50% increase in literacy in a region with 30% literacy levels may mean a small proportionate increase in literacy for some but not real empowerment in the grand scheme of things.

The focus since 2000 on 'basic education' has tended to overlook adult literacy. In much development discourse 'basic education' refers to 'primary and lower secondary education' (see the wiki entry) while adult literacy is often put in a side category. In moving from the Education For All (EFA) goals to the wider Millenium Development Goals (MDG's) in 2000, adult literacy goals have become less evident alongside the focus on access to primary education in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG 2).

Looking towards the future UNESCO initiated the UN Literacy Decade in 2003 which will end in 2012. In fact the draft UNLD proposal states:  “Literacy policies and programmes today require going beyond the limited view of literacy that has dominated in the past. Literacy for all requires a renewed vision of literacy….”. In 2005 UNESCO also launched the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) as a framework for achieving the Decade’s goals coordinated by The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. For more on this check the UNESCO website here and the recent news from the high level forum on Adult Literacy on the UIL site here. The presentations and discussion from this forum will also provide input for the second Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE) 2012 that will focus specifically on literacy to mark the end of the United Nations Literacy Decade. Now that this decade is ending, in 2012 raises the question of what will come next in terms of goals for literacy.. 

In the eyes of many other organisations, adult literacy has often continued to be set in the context and referred to or inferred as being essential for the attainment of the goals of poverty reduction and for the empowerment of women, and the reduction of child mortality and maternal mortality. Higher levels of literacy may have a wide range of cross-cutting benefits such as having an effect on reducing the birth rate and raising the age at which women tend to have children. But the problem with this view is that it tends to leave literacy in the background while it focuses on these wider outcomes for poverty reduction.

Why is this view in need of change? How important will it be in the future to be literate and be able to use the internet and on-line or mobile services for all kinds of public or transactional interactions? It may sound trite to suggest that many teenagers can now go longer without food than without Facebook, and I don't think should be completely dismissed. If the ability to use a mobile phone or a mobile device and to send messages by text and to be linked into networks connects you to essential services, key resources and people, then should it be considered an essential 21st century skill and part of being a literate person of the future? I think that at the end of this literacy decade there remains a lot to discuss.

UNESCO is finding new ways of bringing attention to this and of helping ideas to bloom in this area by partnering with Nokia and the Pearson Foundation to create the EFA Crowdsourcing Challenge. This challenge allows participants to submit innovative ideas on how mobile technology can strengthen literacy, entries are judged on their potential for social impact and real educational value and are put into a competition for a cash prize (if you wish to participate entries must be submitted by May 31, 2012). Some of the ideas that have received attention (see the link to the EFA Challenge for more info) include:

-  ReadWrite, by Simon Botes (South Africa), a mobile application that teaches users how to read and write in any language.

- Mobile Phone Assisted Reading and Augmented Reality-based Translation by Wu Dongyue (China), which uses Nokia’s mobile capabilities to scan a text, then have the program read the word aloud, so learners can link a text to a word.

- An educational game by John Doe (United Kingdom) which helps children learn words in a new language using a “treasure hunting” mobile application.

- “Test on Texts”, a mobile application for students which evaluates their knowledge via text questions and suggests content in an intuitive manner.

An identical UNESCO Crowdsourcing challenge for primary education is also on-line here. Also for some more information on similar stories about the use of mobile technology in South Africa also check out Steve Vosloo's blog here.

UNESCO in December 2011 importantly held an International Experts Meeting and Symposium on Mobile Learning. The presentations from this event are available here and the leaflet is here. This meeting seeks to some degree to bridge this gap in national and international policies that have been designed in the 'pre mobile' era and is an initial exploratory step towards achieving this.

In recent years there has been some real success with larger scale ideas to reinforce literacy learning from private enterprise and combinations of for-profit and non-for profit initiatives such as PlanetRead founded by Brij Kothari the Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009. This interview with him at Davos 2011 highlights one problem, as he states in the interview: too often governments are not open to some of these innovative ideas, which is why it took him ten years to convince the broadcasting companies in India to take Same Language Subtitling seriously.

These entrepreneurs are changing the opportunities for adult literacy learning and for mobile technology and ITC's in education. While the potential of such opportunities to bring about change by empowering and giving voice to the masses in social movements is probably high on the agenda of many governments (especially if access to the internet and mobile services is tightly controlled as it is in Myanmar or China), it is also likely to be high on the agenda of private enterprise. Entrepreneurs such as Brij Kothari lead the way, but international organisations working with governments play an important role as well.

Below is an overview of some of the themes in the area of ICT and education for UNESCO extracted from a presentation on the website of the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (ITTE) in Moscow, which also lists some of the policy brief's that were published in 2010 and 2011. Although a policy brief on ICT and Literacy has been published, it tends not to focus on adult literacy or non-formal education - it is available here along with the other briefs as e-copiesThe IITE website also has information about recent events such as an international conference on “Teacher Competencies in Knowledge Society: Policy, Pedagogy, Social Skills”  held on 1-2 December 2011 in Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan.

To facilitate policy dialogue, work on measuring change and developing indicators is a necessary step. It seems for this purpose that UNESCO IITE has put forward objective and outcomes with indicators in its 2008-2013 Mid-Term strategy here. For example UNESCO also carried out a project in 2002 -2003 on the development and use of indicators of ICT in education for the Baltic and CIS countries, and information about this is available on the UNESCO Bangkok site here. Furthermore the IITE will be holding an on-line Forum on Policy of ICT use in Education and a High-level Policy Meeting on ICTs in Education for CIS, Baltic States and the Africa region.

Adult education, or non-formal education together with literacy and mobile learning do appear as a central focus on other the regional websites such as the UNESCO Bangkok website here under the wing of UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Programme of Education for All (APPEAL). In contrast the IITE's website tends to focus on how ICT's and social media can contribute to classroom practice (for example referring to ICT's for primary education).

The potential for ICT's to facilitate learning in new ways that can impact on adult and non-formal education could also be an area where NGO's and other organisations all over the world can help drive innovation. For example foundations such as the Shuttleworth Foundation provide great platforms to drive forward thinking in areas like this.

Other areas of formal education have received plenty of attention such as Higher Education. To see where some of these initiatives are leading see the Horizon Report which is published annually, from 2011 and the 2012 topics (mobile apps and tablets are two prominent topics - see here).

It seems to me that there is now a gap for a wider discussion about taking the lessons of past experiences to apply them to the present and the future of literacy teaching. This hopefully might include discussions about past models such as the REFLECT approach, or the kind of self-run small literacy groups that were popular in the 80's and 90's, with simple readers that worked around the idea of incorporating literacy learning into task based group activities. What would these models look like if they were brought into the 21st century using mobile technology?

With so much diversity in this field we might expect some totally new approaches using new technology. Some interesting examples of new practices might include the UNESCO mobile literacy project in Pakistan (the project of Ichiro Mayazama whose paper is here) or the text to teach project in the Philippines. For more information see the UNESCO report from 2005 on mobile learning and resources from the Bangkok office here.

Also for a retrospective on ICT for development, take a look back at what Richard Hawkins wrote about 2010 here for the World Bank. Rickard Hawkins has also taken a look at financing and international cooperation in this area by asking what role education should play in donor ICT strategies. Currently, the World Bank Group is consulting with external and internal stakeholders to refine and strengthen its ICT strategy. It is developing a new ICT Sector strategy that better incorporates ICT’s transformational power. It will include a cross-sectoral approach that focuses on three pillars: innovate, connect and transform.

The World Bank's senior ICT and Education Specialist, Michael Trucano also has a blog addressing these topics and has addressed literacy in fact in his post in October, mentioning points that I have highlighted here as well. Also back in 2010 he wrote an interesting post on 11 countries to watch in the future (here). Of these Korea has shown itself to be a leader in international cooperation and has attracted a lot of interest in where it is going with investments into ICT technology particularly within formal education and pre-primary education. The Korean Education Research Information Service (KERIS), recently published their initial report on global information communication technology (ICT) indicators in education.  This report, “Analysis Report of Global ICT4ED Readiness”, outlines a framework for analyzing ICT for education (ICT4ED). See the UNESCO Bangkok website here.

For many governments such as Korea, literacy at primary level in schools is likely to be the main focus especially considering the pressure to achieve results in tests like PISA and with increased investments into pre-primary education. Development experts at RTI and within organisations like USAID have correspondingly made the case for focusing on literacy at primary level and increasing the use of Early Grade Reading Assessments as an indicator to measure gaps in quality in education systems. This could be one application where tablet computers could be used in possibly cost effective ways. This idea has been explored here on the Edu Tech blog.

I have proposed however that we need to pay more attention to what is happening outside of schools and to find ways to draw attention and innovation towards literacy beyond the classroom walls. In some ways Richard Hawkins has also raised this issue in his blog post about the World Bank 2020 strategy released in 2011. One comment that stands out to me in his analysis is that the World Bank's systems approach may actually reinforce the barriers between formal and non-formal education that technology is so effectively dissolving. Richard Hawkins writes:

"the strategy highlights how technologies are transforming the world outside the formal schooling sector. It then goes on to suggest (I think) that we need to bring this world into education systems and schools. But: Perhaps the really transformative power of ICTs would be if they could help bring what is meant to occur within existing systems and schools into this wider world, and not vice versa?"

We may find ourselves referring to empowerment in the future through the use of ICT's, and increasingly referring to literacy as enabling the use of ICT's and vice versa. Evidently technology is having a greater impact in bringing education to those who cannot access it formally and in enabling literacy learning in new ways. But advocacy and support may also be necessary to get governments and organisations to recognise the key role that literacy and ICT literacy has.

In 2012 policy dialogue can support innovation and goal setting to address these issues and recognise the role ICT's can have both in formal and non-formal forms of education. Literacy is one area of focus for bridging this gap between government and enterprise, and it seems that foundations and international organisations can play an important role in enabling this and in helping ideas flouish. If we are going to try to bring concepts and approaches up-to-date this might also require reviewing the concepts, goals and ideas about literacy for the future. A wider discussion on the importance of literacy and technology in education might also benefit from looking at the failings and successes of strategies and approaches in the past.

These views and opinions are my own and are not representative of any organisations or other parties. I hope this might be useful to anyone thinking about getting involved in this area. I am putting together some of my own ideas around some different topics and will be using this blog to keep track of my personal reflections. So if you feel that this has been informative or helpful, please send it on to others and add references and comments in the section below this post.

And have a wonderful 2012 - with all the exciting things that it will bring!