Reconsidering literacy and access in a digital era

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By Siyabulela Fobosi       

Learning in the digital age is central to schooling, and is currently a main concern to educators and members of the public. However, the changes of communication channels in this digital age requires a major re-thinking of the nature of literacy and the pedagogy of literacy teaching and teacher education.

The access to information technology is, particularly, divided between those who have access to the internet and those who do not. In South Africa, there is an advantaged elite minority and, the less privileged majority. The elite minority have major access to digital literacy in their contexts. In contrast to this, a less privileged majority comes from under-resourced contexts where digital technology is rare and, access unevenly distributed.

The Department of Basic Education has committed to increasing access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) by learners and teachers in support of curriculum implementation for improved learning outcomes. The use of ICT is to ensure the delivery of basic education, including providing teacher training, ICT devices, software, connectivity and IT support to schools and online learner and teacher support material. An amount of R42 million was set aside for Operation Phakisa over the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) period, to plan and support the more effective use of ICTs in the delivery of quality education. The following key achievements from the previous year 2016, were noted in the 2017/2018 Annual Performance Plan of the Eastern Cape Department of Education: 790 schools have connectivity for teaching and learning. Similarly, 958 schools were recorded to use electronic content in teaching and learning. One of the challenges facing the Department in the Province, is the development of ICT infrastructure that is outdated and non-existent.

The Annual Performance Plan also noted that the Department gave each school Internet Connectivity as well as laptops for the South African Schools Administration and Management System (SASAMS). Government must ensure that every school meets the required infrastructure norms and standards for effective learning and teaching. Based on the estimate of Stats SA’, the South African population reached 55.9million people in June 2016, meaning that the country was to reach the 40 percent Internet penetration mark in 2016.

The difficulty to access internet throughout the country is becoming synonymous with economic access. In order to increase digital transformation in the whole country, equal emphasis needs to be allocated to digital skills development as is to infrastructure development. There is, thus, a need to bridge the digital divide in order to promote digital transformation throughout the country.

To define it briefly, literacy in the digital age has to do with the ability to understand and use information presented via the computers in different ways. The concept of literacy does not only have to do with being able to read, but also the ability to read with meaning. It is the ability of people to use digital tools to learn. Digital literacy has to do with the following important skills clusters: ICT literacy skills, technology literacy, and information literacy. Digital literacy in education is important, because it introduces ICTs in schools which is educational, not only technological. According to UNESCO, digital literacy is more than being able to use computers, but also include the use and production of digital media, information processing and retrieval, participation in social networks for creation and sharing of knowledge. It also includes different professional computing skills. Digital literacy is important, particularly, because it improves employability, as it is a skill demanded by many employers when they evaluate a job application. It is, however, critical to note that the definition of digital literacy is contested, with this leading to different indicators for measuring digital literacy. As such, the countries around the world should adopt a standardised, multi-dimensional definition of digital literacy. The following are the five dimensions that constitute digital literacy: information literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, communication literacy and technology literacy.

Re-thinking literacy in this context does not close or complete a thought around the teaching and learning environments. It invites further engagement. It is invitational because it encourages and invites honest engagement. It is open, because it is suggestive of a variety of options and possibilities to improve the quality of education. Literacy in the digital age is affecting everything from access to information technology, to its use in teaching and learning. There is, thus, a need to explore the possibilities of digital resources for literacy in remote rural areas/communities in order to increase the accessibility to information and, access to news by the people in these communities. Doing this will ensure that learners are not excluded from the dominant literacy in the society at large. Teaching of one type of literacy should not privilege certain groups, while disempowering others who have not had access to that dominant literacy.

Re-thinking literacy in the digital age does not only mean the ability of a user to be able to use software or particular digital devices for learning, but also necessitates pedagogical skills of the learners and teachers in order to utilise digital contexts effectively. The Department of Education in the country and across the world, therefore, has a task of ensuring that teachers develop suitable online content, to develop the necessary technological knowledge and skills for teachers and learners. Notably, the Gauteng Department of Education between October 2010 and March 2011 piloted the Intel Getting Started Programme with the aim of training teachers. The course focuses on introducing teachers to basic functions that would help teachers to lighten their workload as well as introducing them to the concept of 21st Century skills. In the Eastern Cape, social partners have supported project-based e-learning pilots such as Rhodes University’s Siyakhula Living Labs Project. These projects are, however, few and still far in addressing the huge digital divide in the country.

In the digital age, teaching must ensure that learning is pedagogically sound, learner-focused, and accessible. Most importantly is to note that technology should take a centre stage in effective learning experiences. The digital tools have intensely transformed how ideas and practices are communicated, and what it means to be a knowledgeable.

Digital literacy around the world is becoming increasingly important in the educational sector. The new educational tools, such as tablets and e-books could assist in schools. As such, this should become a component of strides towards universal access to quality education. This form of literacy is not only focused on improving learning for the learners, but teachers are also encouraged to incorporate technology-enhanced pedagogies into the classroom. These changes create specific opportunities and present challenges within the South African context. It creates opportunities to improve literacy in the country. In addition to this, it presents challenges for the most rural contexts that do not have access to technology-enhanced pedagogies. Hence, the need to address this challenge.

A critical question to think about going forward, is whether the learners and teachers are prepared to embrace the digital literacy and opportunities. Some learners access their devices on a regular basis and, it is vital to note that this is education in its own right. Teachers should be able to explore practical skills and strategies to help learners to think critically about the information around them. Young people are the majority in South Africa and have the highest rate of unemployment. Access to data is essential to their education and employment, as well as their right to be informed citizens. We also urge youths to look to community telecommunications networks as a path to self-empowerment.

In addition to this, I note that the majority of learners in South Africa do not have access to the internet and, specifically the smart devices to access online resources. This, further, add to the knowledge divide between schools in the country.

Rural schools face a number of challenges, such as poor basic infrastructure, few material resources and no electricity in some places. The lack of access to information and communication technology in the rural areas is also increasing the division between the haves and have-nots in basic education. In order to address this problem, digital literacy should be a part of the curriculum in schools around the world. As such, teachers should be able to integrate learning technologies into an efficient curriculum management, enhance learner skills and enrich the learning experience.

Digital literacy is important because it has positive effects on skills development and for successful learning. In this context, learners are able to access information easily, in particular, since a growing amount of data is available in digital sources that are much easier to access than traditional paper-based resources for learning. Against this backdrop, countries must ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote learning opportunities for all in rural and urban areas. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development education goal (SDG 4) commits states to providing inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels. It is important that all schools in South Africa and abroad have an internet connection irrespectively of their location or their size, in order to improve quality education. All schools must have a functioning computer laboratory and a teacher that is qualified to train basic computer literacy skills.

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