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Why it’s time to prioritise digital literacy

Web Foundation · September 8, 2017

When we think of literacy, we usually think of the ability to read the words in a book, or to write something down. Despite our increasingly digital world, it is less common for us to think about digital literacy — the skills and capabilities needed to participate fully, effectively and equally in our digital world.

International Literacy Day is being celebrated today (8 September) under the theme of ‘literacy in a digital world’. This theme recognises the vital nature of not just the ability to read and write, but also the ability to use digital technologies. It further focuses on the role of information and communication technologies (ICT) in reducing global inequalities and improving education, health, job opportunities, and empowerment prospects around the world.

Internet access offers a powerful avenue for people around the world to assert their right to education, and to claim social, economic and political opportunities for empowerment. But half the world’s population is still offline. Most of these 3.9 billion people are women, and most are in developing countries. Our Women’s Rights Online research shows that poor urban women in developing countries are 50% less likely than men to access the internet.

Closing the digital literacy gap is crucial to closing the digital gender gap and achieving a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 4, which seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

“Not knowing how” to use the internet continues to be a significant barrier to digital inclusion, particularly for women and girls. Among the urban poor, women are 1.6 times more likely than men to cite lack of know-how as a barrier to their internet access and use.

Although ICTs are a powerful tool for developing literacy skills and accessing education, progress on providing internet access and digital literacy training in public schools has been painfully slow. Across the majority of 10 low- and middle-income countries surveyed in our 2016 Digital Gender Gap Audit, there is little or no internet access in schools, limited provisioning of teacher training in ICTs, and almost no systematic collection of data to monitor progress in these areas. Further, only four of these 10 surveyed countries have national or sub-national policies to encourage increased access, training, and use of the web by women and girls. But in many of these cases (as in other countries reviewed), no official, concrete targets exist.

Governments should act urgently to prioritise delivering digital literacy training as a critical component of school literacy curriculum across all education levels, along with reading and writing. They can do this by:

  • Putting digital skills and education (particularly for women and girls) front and centre of policy agendas. Programmes should be designed to boost the confidence and interest of girls, and focus on empowerment and rights, not just technical abilities.
  • Providing internet connectivity to all public schools and invest in ICT training and support for teachers
  • Replacing expensive proprietary textbooks and learning materials with Open Educational Resources.
  • Pairing digital literacy with digital security and information literacy, equipping students to protect themselves online and to create and critique (not just consume) content.
  • Analysing and addressing reasons for high female drop-out from STEM subjects and enhance post-secondary STEM opportunities, especially for girls and young women.
  • Taking steps to eradicate the gender gap in access to higher and tertiary education by ensuring that women have equal access to tertiary education opportunities.
  • Using Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs) to drive digital education programming. USAFs are funded through contributions from telecommunications companies and can be used to support public access initiatives, connectivity subsidies, and digital skills training. However, our ongoing research into the use of USAFs shows that these resources remain mostly untapped — of the five SMART Africa countries which openly publish details on USAF spending (Benin, Kenya, Rwanda, Togo and Uganda), we estimate that at least $59 million — enough to provide basic digital skills training to over 18 million women — is sitting unused, or has been diverted to other non-ICT agencies. Given that 14 of the 18 SMART Africa countries have active USAFs, the total figure is likely to be far higher.

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