Tracking Literacy in an Increasingly Digital World

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)

The theme of this year's International Literacy Day on Friday, 8 September, is ‘Literacy in a Digital World’. The Day aims to highlight the kind of literacy skills people need to navigate this world and the literacy policies and programmes that can leverage the opportunities such a world provides.

There are so many positives about the digital technologies that are transforming the way we live, work and learn. But those who lack access to digital technologies and the skills to navigate them – particularly basic literacy – can find themselves side-lined by societies that are increasingly digital.

So how do we promote literacy in a digital world where UIS data show that 750 million adults (two-thirds of whom are women) including 102 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 – cannot even read or write a simple sentence?  

The digital divide

First, we need to get to grips with the global literacy challenge. Basic literacy and numeracy are positioned as fundamental building blocks for lifelong learning under Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), which includes a specific target (4.4) to “By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship”. In addition to greater data on basic literacy and numeracy, we also need data on digital literacy, including data on the digital divide, with some people having less access than others to ICTs, less opportunity to use ICTs and lacking the empowerment to incorporate ICTs in their work and everyday life.

Indicator 4.4.1, selected for Target 4.4 by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), focuses on the: “Proportion of youth and adults with information and communications technology (ICT) skills, by type of skill”. A second indicator has since been advanced: “Percentage of youth/adults who have achieved at least a minimum level of proficiency in digital literacy skills”.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the custodian agency responsible for developing the methodology and leading the data collection to produce Indicator 4.4.1, while UNESCO is responsible for reporting on progress towards Target 4.4.

ICT skills in a changing world

This welcome focus on ICT in the SDGs reflects the importance of such skills for workforce development. Their measurement, however, is a complex task for three reasons. First, there is no universal agreement on a definition of what these skills are. There are many definitions in use and they are often changing to keep up with the rapid changes in technology and digital work opportunities. Two decades ago, we were probably talking about the ability to use a computer for basic tasks. But today’s ICT skills span an expanding range of skills in different categories, such as computers, information, Internet, coding, data, mobile and life skills. All of these are brought together under the umbrella concept of some form of literacy (namely digital literacy, information literacy, data literacy).  

Second – and to complicate things still further – the definition of each type of literacy is also subject to change over time and often overlap. Information literacy may be positioned separately to digital literacy, or it may be seen as part of it.

Third, definitions and assessments of Internet skills often assume computer skills. There is agreement that they are all skills that are relevant for work, but that makes it all the more important to specify precisely which ICT skills matter for “employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship”.

Data for lifelong learning

As part of the push for greater data on literacy overall, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is calling for a stronger focus on data to support the achievement of Target 4.4 and on other areas from pre-schooling to education for sustainable development, to build up a true picture of lifelong learning. 

The UIS is also working to expand the pool of data on literacy worldwide in support of SDG Target 4.6, which aims to ensure that all youth and most adults achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030 – critical skills for a digital age. The UIS collects data for more than 200 countries and territories through its annual surveys and partnerships, and these data are presented in a new fact sheet and the UNESCO eAtlas of Literacy, which features interactive maps and charts that can be shared and downloaded.

This go-to source for literacy data shows remarkable improvements in youth literacy rates. Half a century ago, 22% of people between the ages of 15 and 24 could not read or write a simple sentence compared to 9% today, and young people in Africa and Asia, in particular, are far more likely to be literate than they were 50 years ago. It remains to be seen if such progress translates into greater digital literacy in the years to come, if the digital divides can be narrowed.

To track change over generations, the UIS developed the elderly literacy rate. For example, in Southern Asia, more than twice as many young people have basic literacy skills (89%) than those aged 65 years or older (42%). However, this generation gap looks set to narrow as an increasingly literate youth population ages.

There are continuing concerns, however, about a persistent gender gap. Older women have not caught up with the men of their own generation in terms of literacy, and young women aged 15 to 24 years still lag behind men from that age group in parts of the world. In Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, women aged 15 years and older are one-fifth less likely to be literate than men in the same age group – a reflection of entrenched gender discrimination that works against girls’ education and women’s lifelong learning.

A new generation of literacy indicators

Such concerns reinforce the urgent need for greater investment in literacy programmes and in literacy data to achieve SDG Target 4.6. Fortunately a new generation of indicators is being developed with countries and partners under the umbrella of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML).

Given the UIS proposal to extend the new UIS Reporting Scales to include assessments of digital literacy, there is a pressing need for one definition that applies in all contexts to ensure sound measurement. This is why agencies like the ITU have joined GAML, which is already developing the methodologies needed to gather more nuanced data and the tools required for their standardisation. In particular, the Alliance is finding ways to link existing large-scale assessments to produce globally-comparable data to monitor the literacy skills of children, youth and adults, through close collaboration with a wide range of partners.

With so many millions of adults still unable to read or write, such efforts are vital if we are to reach the SDG literacy targets and ensure that future generations can participate in all of the opportunities offered by an increasingly digital world.  

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