“Literacy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy we're living in today.”
International Literacy Day, observed on Sept 8 in countries all over the world, highlights the importance and value of literacy. Communities, organisations and governments reflect upon the literacy challenges to raise awareness and concern for literacy problems that exist locally, nationally and globally.
The Day was founded by proclamation of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)on Oct 26 in 1966 ‘to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights and to advance the literacy agenda toward a more literate and sustainable society.’ UNESCO and its partners promote the day to underline the significance of literacy for healthy societies. Although, much progress has been made in improving literacy rates illiteracy remains a global problem. It’s estimated that 750 million adults around the globe are illiterate. About two-thirds of those who can’t read are women. Alarmingly, 250 million children are currently failing to acquire basic literacy skills.
However, literacy is also a cause for celebration on the day because the global literacy rate for all people aged 15 and above is 86.3 percent.
The issue of literacy is a key component of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UN's Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by world leaders in September 2015, promotes universal access to quality education and learning opportunities throughout people’s lives. Sustainable Development Goal 4.6 aims to ensure that all youth and most adults achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030.
The year 2020 infested with COVID-19 pandemic took, like many other sectors, the education sector by surprise and forced it to adjust to online education in a short time.
When a conflict or natural disaster erupts, education is generally the first service interrupted and resumes last. Governments are overburdened by the needs and relief aid for the population’s basic requirements: food, water, shelter and protection, with only 2 percent of humanitarian funds allocated for education.
During the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed disrupting the education of 62.3 percent of the world’s student population of 1.09 billion.
It made us realise the inadequacy of the existing education system. The current education system is losing its relevance in this age of innovation, disruption and constant change, where adaptability and learning readiness is most needed.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, an estimated 24 million learners might never return to formal education. Out of which, 11 million will be girls and young women.
Now is the time to reflect on the impact COVID-19 has had on education and what lessons can be learned. To ensure no one is left behind, it’s imperative to enrich and transform the existing learning spaces through an integrated approach, ensuring lifelong literacy learning for all. In response to this urgent situation, UNESCO and its Member States are expediting and increasing their efforts to ensure that progress made is not reversed, but reinforced.
Globally, UNESCO is organising a two-day hybrid international event from Sept 8-9, 2022, in Côte d’Ivoire. The theme this year is, "Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces.”
To solve the global education crisis improved access to education, equity and quality are crucial.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic struck, in many parts of the world, children supposed to be in school weren’t attending schools; those who were, often, had a lack of resources in schools to provide quality education.
At a time when quality education is vital to one’s life, children are missing out on the education needed to live fulfilling lives as adults and to participate and contribute to the world economy.
Now, as we have moved on to online education, we need to make it more accessible. Access to education is low in many developing nations. Inequalities also exist within developed countries. This gap is seen across countries and between income brackets within countries. For example, 95 percent of students in Switzerland, Norway, and Austria have a computer to use for their schoolwork but only 34 percent in Indonesia. Measures should be taken to reduce the digital divides intensified by the crisis across income groups as well as across regions; otherwise, the gap in quality education and socio-economic equality will worsen further.
Ensuring equity for every child is a must. Every child must have the resources needed to go to school, regardless of circumstances.
Quality education equips learners with the capabilities and competencies required to make them economically productive, develop sustainable livelihoods, and enhance their well-being and contribution to society, thereby, assisting in the economic growth of the country. We must update education with job readiness, adaptability to modern technology and the creation of long-term economic value in mind.
Teachers play a vital role in reimagining successful teaching and learning strategies and therefore, require ongoing service training and support to develop their teaching skills. Educators around the globe, including some of the world’s wealthiest countries, are struggling with how to best make distance learning viable during the pandemic.
Anxiety, fear and isolation are factors to be considered in the COVID crisis. All educational models or policies should incorporate strategies to benefit the psychological well-being of students, faculty and support staff; as mental health has a tremendous effect on performance in life as a whole.
Flexibility in the education process should also be considered because of differences in the overall condition of the students.
If we are to get close to SDG 4.6, governments and all education sectors and communities must make an all-out effort to ensure that systems and infrastructures can cope and minimise the negative effects during any crisis.
In developing countries where education is primarily provided by the government, public-private educational partnerships could play a significant role in future education.
Some believe that the unplanned and rapid move to online learning with no training, little preparation and insufficient access to bandwidth, will result in a poorer education experience.
But with a little conscious effort and initiative, as we have seen recently, the new hybrid model of education might be possible with significant benefits.
There have already been successful transitions among many institutions. For those who do have access to the right technology, there is evidence that learning online has become more effective in many ways. Research shows that on average, students retain 25-60 percent more material when learning online compared to only 8-10 percent in a classroom. This is because in online situations students can learn at their own pace and style for more retention.
Online education in Bangladesh may also widen the existing gap in learning inequality as rural areas, poorer regions and poorer households have much less access to ICT than the urban, richer regions and households. Better preparedness to combat this digital divide will minimise this learning inequality.
The slow pace of change with the demand of the modern world in academic institutions globally is tragic. However, COVID-19 has become a catalyst for educational institutions worldwide to search for innovative solutions for a more effective and practical life-based educational curriculum.
UNESCO continues to play a leading role, through the celebration of International Literacy Day, in improving global literacy along with governments and communities of the world.
On International Literacy Day we need to focus on literacy teaching and learning in the Covid-19 crisis, discuss its overall impact, lessons learned, and how innovative and effective pedagogies and teaching methodologies can be used in youth and adult literacy programs to face the pandemic and beyond. It will be an opportunity to analyse and focus on the role of educators, as well as strategies for effective policies, systems, governance and measures that can support educators and learning.
UNESCO’s role during the collective global discussion through the conference will play a crucial role to reimagine literacy teaching and learning of youth and adults in the postCovid-19 era towards achieving the goal of SDG 4.6 for the recovery and resilience-building phase.
Some of the changes or adjustments coronavirus have caused in the education system might continue to stay. It’s undeniable that future literacy programs can benefit from digital technology. We need to embrace and support initiatives that pursue the improvement of literacy skills for children and youth through technology.
Investing in education is the most cost-effective way to drive economic development, improve skills and opportunities for young women and men, and unlock progress on all 17 Sustainable Development GoalsUnited Nations Secretary-General António Guterres
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data, unfortunately, most governments invest only between 2 - 4.5 percent of their gross domestic product in education. Bangladesh's expenditure on education, both as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and as a percentage of total tax revenue is one of the lowest in the world.
If we are to succeed and contribute to the world economy, it’s high time governments worldwide rethink and increase fund allocation in education.
Although the pandemic arrived without warning and educational institutions had to adapt quickly to ensure academic continuity, we must take advantage of this crisis to pause, analyse, reflect, and then rethink education paving the way from education to employability and economic independence for all in this century.
Let’s celebrate International Literacy Day with our minds open to re-invent and embrace the innovative education policies amalgamated with modern technology in an ever-changing era of new challenges.
After all, as Nelson Mandela has said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon for changing the world.’
[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]
1. International Literacy Day 2019: Why we celebrate it, theme and significance, Scroll.in, Sept 8, 2019
2. International Literacy Day 2021, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, Sept 8, 2021
3. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever, World Economic Forum, Apr 29, 2020