The Financial Express

International Literacy Day 2020

Literacy in Covid-19 and beyond

| Updated: September 18, 2020 20:46:46

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Literacy in Covid-19 and beyond

Today, 8 September is the International Literacy Day (ILD). Since 1967, the Day is observed throughout the world annually in cognizance of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. The purpose is to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society. Though remarkable progress made, according to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the specialised agency of United Nations, literacy challenges persist with at least 773 million adults worldwide lacking basic literacy skills today.

The theme of International Literacy Day 2020 is 'Literacy teaching and learning in the Covid-19 crisis and beyond', which aims to highlight literacy learning in a lifelong learning perspective with main focus on youth and adults. The recent Covid-19 crisis has been a stark reminder of the existing gap between policy discourse and reality: a gap that already existed in the pre-Covid-19 era and is negatively affecting the learning of youth and adults who have no or low literacy skills and therefore tend to face multiple disadvantages. During Covid-19, in many countries, adult literacy programmes were absent in the initial education response plans, so the majority of adult literacy programmes that did exist were suspended with just a few courses continuing virtually, through TV and radio, or in open air spaces.

On the International Literacy Day 2020, through a virtual conference, UNESCO headquarters in Paris will initiate a global discussion to reimagine the literacy teaching and learning of youth and adults in the post-Covid-19 era towards the achievement of the SDG4.

CONCEPT NOTE ON THE DAY: Despite, steady progress in literacy in the past decades, globally, more than 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics. During the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed down in more than 190 countries, disrupting the education of 62.3 per cent of the world's student population of 1.09 billion in 123 countries. The Covid-19 pandemic also affected around 63 million primary and secondary teachers in 165 countries.  Governments have been rapidly deploying distance-learning solutions on an unprecedented scale, particularly in formal education for children and young people. A range of solutions, such as virtual lessons, dissemination of materials, and learning provision through TV, radio programmes, have been adopted. At the same time, in many places, the Covid-19 crisis has shed light on the unpreparedness of infrastructure, education systems, programmes, and people, including policy-makers, educators and professionals, families, and learners themselves, for ensuring the continuity of teaching and learning in such a situation. In many countries, adult literacy and education were absent in initial education response plans, and numerous adult literacy programmes that did exist in the pre-Covid-19 crisis era have been suspended. In terms of the digital divide, for instance, globally, nearly half of the world population (51.2 per cent), including many non-literate adults, did not have access to Internet in 2018. Mobile phone subscription per 100 people was 67.5 in low human development countries, while the corresponding figure exceeds 90 per cent in high (113.6 per cent) and middle (91.9 per cent) human development countries. As countries are moving out from the initial response phase, it is anticipated that the majority of non-literate youth and adults would be the hardest hit by educational, social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.  In this context, there is the emerging need to revisit literacy teaching and learning for youth and adults, as well as the role of educators. How have literacy teaching and learning, as well as educators, been affected by the Covid-19 crisis? What are some effective teaching approaches that should be maintained or expanded? How can teaching and learning for youth and adult literacy be reimagined in times of Covid-19 and beyond? These are some of the questions that need to be answered to guide our collective reflection and action.

MAIN ISSUES TO ADDRESS: The governments and partners tend to focus more on teachers in formal education and to the system and programme levels. Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the fragility of many youth and adult literacy educators, programmes and systems as represented by abrupt suspension of numerous programmes. At the same time, during the initial response phase, policy-makers, practitioners, and development partners have learnt some important lessons, particularly in the context of formal education, such as the potential of distance learning offered by digital and other types of technologies, and the value of face-to-face interactions between educators and learners. The Covid-19 crisis has been also a reminder of the educators' catalytic role in generating the transformative power of literacy for people's empowerment, social transformation, and the betterment of humanity and the planet, within and beyond the SDG4 context. Moving forward through the Covid-19 era and beyond, it is necessary to understand the state and a range of issues that prevented literacy teaching and learning, as well as educators, from being most effective. At the system level, a prominent challenge is the shortage and uneven distribution of educators, especially in non-formal settings and disadvantaged areas. Another serious challenge concerns the limited capacities of some educators.  The capacities and resilience to manage distance teaching during the Covid-19 crisis is a case in point. Furthermore, many educators are insufficiently remunerated and work in difficult conditions with limited career prospects.

UNESCO'S VISION OF A LITERATE WORLD: UNESCO has been at the forefront of global literacy efforts since 1946, advancing the vision of a literate world for all. To advance literacy as an integral part of lifelong learning and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UNESCO takes the following approaches to promote literacy worldwide, with an emphasis on youth and adults:

■ Building strong foundations through early childhood care and education

■ Providing quality basic education for all children

■ Scaling-up functional literacy levels for youth and adults who lack basic literacy skills

■ Developing literate environments

The Member States adopted a new UNESCO Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy (2020-2025) at UNESCO's 40th General Conference in Paris. These are: (1) Supporting Member States in developing national literacy policies and strategies; (2) Addressing the learning needs of disadvantaged groups, particularly women and girls; (3) Leveraging digital technologies to expand access and improve learning outcomes; and (4) Monitoring progress and assessing literacy skills and programmes.

Aligned with the Sustainable Goal on Education 4 (SDG4) and Education 2030 Agenda, the Strategy aims to mobilise stronger political will and financial resources. UNESCO recognises the importance of a three-pronged approach to literacy: 1. Expanding quality education. 2. Providing alternative opportunities for out-of-school children, young people and adults. 3. Enriching literate environments.

BANGLADESH CONTEXT: Like elsewhere, schools and all educational institution of all tiers are closed in Bangladesh since March 15 because of Covid-19. However attempts have been made to somehow engage children / students in learning process through television and radio programmes. Efforts are there for online classes too. But because of inadequate connectivity facilities, lack of resources by a large number of people and the great digital divide as mentioned by UNESCO world report, educational activities of the students of schools, colleges and universities in Bangladesh are not functioning to the desirable extent. On the other hand literacy programmes are thrown in more difficult situation. It is almost in a standstill position due to Corona.

Non experts like me stressed on linking literacy programmes with skill development before Covid-19, inspired by the UNESCO's theme on the Day in the past, experiences of different nearby countries and guidelines / activities of Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE). My emphasis was especially for the workers who go abroad for earning wages as mostly unskilled workers from Bangladesh. According to Bureau of Manpower, employment and training of the workers who worked abroad since 1976, 33 per cent were skilled and two per cent were professionals. The World Bank Group's Migrants and Remittances Report of 2017 ranked Bangladesh as the 9th top remittance receiving country in the world with its $13.5 billion remittance receipt. Bangladeshi unskilled workers were paid half the wages of skilled workers from India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Bangladeshis who work abroad seriously press on the point that Bangladesh needs to overcome the branding as a nation of unskilled workers. In this regard government officials allege that 'recruiting agencies show no interest in recruiting workers who are   trained'.

Obviously, skills development has link and relevance with the literacy programmes of both the young and the old, in schools and factories. It is high time during and after the pandemic, we reviewed our literacy programmes. International Literacy Day offers a moment to review the progress and come together to tackle the challenges ahead. For that all concerned are required to engage in concerted efforts. They include the government, the policymakers and above all the teachers who can bring the changes effectively. Facilitating internet connectivity for the teachers and learners with steps to remove barriers to digital parity as far as possible and linking literacy with skill development will definitely add to their efficiency level to a great extent and ensure a better career prospect.


Prof Quazi Faruque Ahmed is Chairperson, Initiative for human Development (I.H.D) & former Member, National Education Policy 2010 Committee, Bangladesh.

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