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International Literacy Day: narrowing the digital divide

07/09/2021 - 18:30
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Ensuring access to technology-enabled literacy learning opportunities is central to a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis

Can you imagine what your life would be like without the basic ability to read and write? We often take literacy for granted, but it really is a privilege: there are still over 775 million non-literate young people and adults in the world -2/3 of them are women-. The situation has improved enormously over the last century, but the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the pre-existing inequalities in access to literacy learning opportunities, leaving millions with limited access to life-saving information. On International Literacy Day, the EU reaffirms its commitment to continue narrowing the digital divide and making technology-enabled literacy learning a powerful tool to leave no one behind.

According to the UN, International Literacy Day 2021 “will explore how literacy can contribute to building a solid foundation for a human-centred recovery, with a special focus on the interplay of literacy and digital skills required by non-literate youth and adults”. If being able to read and write is essential for any human being, there is another type of literacy that is just as important in our times: digital literacy. However, the pandemic has highlighted a persistent digital divide in terms of connectivity, infrastructure, and the ability to engage with technology, as well as disparities in other services such as access to electricity, which has limited learning options.

Although with the global crisis the world made great efforts to implement distance education, youth and adult literacy programmes were absent in many initial national response plans. In the case of face-to-face courses that went online, many illiterate people found a new obstacle to follow them in their lack of access to technology or digital skills.

Global literacy in numbers

• As a whole, the global literacy rate is high. The literacy rate for all males and females that are at least 15 years old is 86.3%.
• 773 million adults and young people lack basic literacy skills; 
• 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics; 
• During the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed disrupting the education of 62.3 per cent of the world’s student population of 1.09 billion.

The origins of International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day was first conceived at the “World Conference of Ministers of Education on the Eradication of Illiteracy” held in Tehran, Iran in 1965. The following year UNESCO took the lead and declared September 8 as International Literacy Day, with the primary purpose being “…to remind the international community of the importance of literacy for individuals, communities and societies, and the need for intensified efforts towards more literate societies.”

The issue of literacy is a key component of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal 4 has as one of its targets ensuring all young people achieve literacy and numeracy and that adults, who lack these skills are given the opportunity to acquire them.

EU’s Digital Education Action Plan: resetting education and training for the digital age

‘Digital’ was already one of the six major priorities set by the incoming president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

However, the pandemic has accelerated an existing trend towards online and hybrid learning. This priority is more present than ever in the EU’s Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027), which looks at ways of improving digital skills, teaching and infrastructure, at all levels of education.

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