3.3 Using ICTs to promote literacy training among women

Broad trends in the use of ICTs in literacy programs are emerging from recent research and country studies commissioned by UNESCO. These studies indicate that:

  • Many countries do not use ICTs in literacy programs, nor have they formulated policies for the integration of ICTs into adult literacy programs;
  • Many countries face challenges with regard to financial resources and a lack of technological infrastructure;
  • Where ICTs are used, they are typically basic ones such as radio and television. When computers or the Internet are involved, they tend to be restricted to targeted users;
  • There is a relatively greater use of ICTs in school education. The use of ICTs in community learning centers is still limited;
  • Most ICT projects for adult literacy are pilot projects that are often funded by international agencies and have not addressed methods to promote sustainability;
  • Little attention has been paid to gender issues. There is no effort to address issues of access, content and the impact of technology on women.26

Fact of interest: Who are the illiterate?

Many people are insufficiently literate; they lack the written skills for expression and comprehension that enable them to learn. Some people lack literacy skills because they had no means to attend school or because schooling was cut short or was of poor quality. These people are almost all poor, almost all live in low-income households in developing countries, and many belong to linguistic and cultural minority groups. In most countries, access to education continues to be a greater barrier for women than for men; an estimated two-thirds of the world’s illiterate persons are women.27

Traditional literacy programmes face many challenges, including:

  • High costs,
  • Shortage of teachers,
  • High drop-out rates due to lack of motivation,
  • A lack of access to training materials, and
  • Long periods of time required to achieve literacy goals.

Computer-assisted learning can offer the digital learner many advantages, including the use of computer games and interactive activities that make learning easy and attractive. Digital content developed in local languages can be downloaded and accessed by learners at a time that suits them best. Similarly, by presenting reading lessons and numeracy education in a game form, computer programs encourage learners to compete against themselves and engage in repetition and practice without losing interest. Such computer programs repeat words and correct errors for large numbers of students at the same time, thereby reducing pressure on overworked teachers.
There is a huge potential for ICT applications to promote literacy and numeracy around the world. In particular, ICTs can be enlisted to overcome the many obstacles outlined above by fitting into people’s lives flexibly. The utilization of ICTs to promote literacy and numeracy can take the following forms:

Radio: It can help overcome geographical barriers by facilitating distance learning, bringing literacy education to people who live in remote areas. Although radio lacks the visual element, it is nonetheless entertaining, easily accessible and affordable. Radio transmission, used in combination with printed training materials, can make literacy lessons more true-to-life and interesting. Also, local radio stations usually have close ties with the community, so they are in touch with local preferences, languages and cultures, and can tailor training accordingly. One clear disadvantage of using radios (and indeed television) in literacy education is that programmes are usually broadcast at fixed schedules over which learners have no control. Consequently, learners are not able to learn at their own pace and convenience.

Fact of Interest: Community radio – an empowering tool in the rural context, Mozambique28

Local community radio stations that broadcast from telecenters are certainly the most used ICTs for all the women interviewed in this study. Radio broadcasts are free to the listener, and access does not depend on having electricity or individual radio ownership. People listen together in public places and at home. Running costs are generally low, making the radio the most affordable ICT in rural areas, particularly where wind-up radios are available.

There are, however, people who cannot afford to own a radio. For example, a head of household in Manhiça said she never used any technologies, and she wouldn’t like to have a radio or a telephone since they meant more costs. ”Radio batteries are expensive,” she said. She wanted only to have something to eat every day. When we interviewed her, she was at the telecenter to collect her lost identity card; someone had found it and taken it to the telecenter, and an announcement was made on the radio. The woman’s neighbours heard it and told her. Without the radio to act as a trusted central point she would not have discovered where her card was.

About 95 per cent of the interviewees confirmed that they listened to radio, and many told us that they know the programme schedules. The most popular programmes are the public information announcements, especially death notices. In these women’s socio-cultural context, participating in the mourning of community members and relatives is an essential part of the fabric of society, and the radio is the fastest and most economical way of reaching a large number of people. News programmes and special programmes for women were also popular. News programmes enabled the women to acquire information that reduced their isolation, both within their communities and nationally and internationally. The women’s programmes, meanwhile, covered a range of topics, such as the behaviour of adolescents within the family, safety precautions to be taken in the home, HIV/AIDS, cooking, children’s health and social behaviours.

Television: This medium matches words with images and provides movement and animation in combination with audio, and consequently:

  • Facilitates practicing reading comprehension;
  • Is more entertaining and thereby motivates the target audience to watch and learn;
  • Provides a means by which to stimulate discussion and critical thinking; and
  • Facilitates dissemination of literacy materials with audio-visual features.

Audio Cassettes, CD ROMs, DVD, VCDs: These media have many of the same advantages as radio and television. However, one clear advantage is that literacy courses can be accessed at a time and frequency that can be controlled by learners. Moreover, these forms of ICTs can be utilized at home, which helps to overcome social, cultural, financial and logistical constraints that many learners may face in terms of attending literacy classes.

CD-ROMs, in particular, offer:

  • A cost-effective medium through which literacy content can be disseminated easily and cheaply;
  • An interesting and entertaining resource for reading and writing classes; and
  • The concentration of high volumes of information in a light, small package, as opposed to cumbersome text books.

Digital Cameras: They can be used to create local content, and in particular, to use local images in literacy classes. Techniques could involve:

  • Giving learners more control over the content by letting them collect photos and developing literacy lessons with these materials;
  • Matching words (in the local language) with images they have collected using digital cameras; and
  • Sequencing pictures in order to make learners create sentences and stories, thereby further developing their literacy skills.

Mobiles and SMS Technology (texting): Mobile phones, and in particular Short Message Service (SMS) technology, have become part of day-to-day life in developing and developed countries alike. Unfortunately, they also serve as an ongoing reminder to illiterate people of their illiteracy. This can, however, be a motivation for people to overcome that illiteracy. Moreover, for new learners, regularly using dial pads and sending text messages will serve to reinforce their newly acquired literacy and numeracy skills.

Computer Based Training: The Internet offers a wealth of digital content that is accessible to learners to use at their convenience. Moreover, the dynamic nature of the Internet empowers women because, unlike older technologies such as TV and radio, the Internet is interactive; it transforms users from passive viewers into active participants. With chat rooms, email facilities and social networking websites, the Internet encourages and reinforces reading and writing skills.

Through the Internet, women can transform their stay-at-home status into a learning activity, and can use the Internet as a tool to practice their newly found literacy skills, by:

  • Utilizing it as a platform to develop additional business skills, become career literate, make business transactions, and earn money;
  • Conducting day-to-day activities with the use of online applications (e.g. reaching government services, submitting job applications, paying bills etc); and by
  • Benefiting from social networking sites.
Content Example: The Commonwealth of Learning Literacy Project (COLLIT)

The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) received support from the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID) to undertake a pilot project in Zambia and India to explore ways by which literacy programmes might be enhanced through the use of appropriate technologies. The three-year pilot project, which began in July 1999, was implemented through the ”technology-based community learning center” model. The concept of a community-based learning center includes deploying various types of ICT equipment that will be managed and accessed by members of the community. It also calls for learning to be facilitated and provides a place where locally relevant learning materials can be developed. All of this was a central ingredient in the COLLIT project.

The impact of the project was most visible on the people involved in operating the learning centers, most of whom had no prior exposure to computers and other ICTs. By the end of the project, the facilitators and staff at the learning centers, in both countries, emerged as well-respected ICT-trained literacy instructors with experience in using the equipment to develop locally relevant instructional materials. The COLLIT project also demonstrated that given the opportunity, learners are quite capable of using ICTs in ways that not only help them achieve educational goals, but that are also remarkably motivating and applicable to other facets of their lives.

Source: Commonwealth of Learning 2004: ICT and Literacy: Who Benefits? 

E-learning is one way the internet can be used to combat illiteracy. The International Commission on Workforce Development29 (ICWD)  has recognized several benefits of e-learning, namely:

  • It is non-competitive: E-learning methodologies address learners’ needs, learning styles and capabilities on an individual basis. Learners can focus on their own progress and performance and are continuously rewarded by their learning achievements. E-learning relieves learners of peer stress typically associated with classroom attendance with other learners.
  • Online training can be less intimidating than instructor-led courses: E-learning environments are perceived as risk-free, in the sense that mistakes by learners are confined to themselves and to the system they are using. Therefore, e-learning models save learners embarrassment that they otherwise could experience in group learning environments. Moreover, e-learning systems give students the opportunity to correct their mistakes and try to improve their performance, while learning at their own pace.
  • Content is up-to-date: E-learning systems typically enjoy content management modules that make it possible to update the content and keep it up-to-date with new learning material and courses.
  • Consistency: E-learning systems deliver courses in the same manner each time and for each participant. Thus, learners do not need to adapt to changing teaching models and approaches. Learners focus on the core content efficiently and with minimal distractions.
  • Flexibility and ease of utilization: E-learning requires a computer and Internet access, but with those tools, coursework can be accessed anytime, anywhere and regardless of the availability of teachers.
  • Open and Distance Learning and ICT: Some countries, most notably Australia, the US, and South Africa, along with international organizations such as UNESCO, have developed open learning packages with literacy material. Content can be downloaded and printed out for distribution and easy use in literacy classes. Such materials could be used to supplement other ICTs, such as radio or TV broadcasting, and used by nomadic and remote communities, where illiteracy rates tend to be high, especially among women.
  • Videoconferencing and teleconferencing: By permitting communication across large distances, videoconferencing and teleconferencing can bring literacy classes to very remote areas. Consequently, women who may not be able to travel long distances for social or financial reasons can get access to literacy classes. In this sense, these technologies serve to overcome key obstacles related to cost and convenience that typically prevent the rapid progress of illiteracy eradication.

Audio books (i.e. books that are recorded and made available on audiocassettes and CDs) can be a valuable tool in promoting literacy. They can be used in association with written texts to improve the efficiency of student comprehension and reading ability. Talking Books are, as the name suggests, electronic texts converted into spoken words. They help literacy students by enabling them to hear the words as they read them, and by providing immediate guidance on the pronunciation of specific words. Audio books can also be equipped with a system for decoding and tracking words with troublesome pronunciations. This can enable teachers to identify the words that are challenging for a particular student. In these respects, audio books are more supportive as a learning tool than electronic books.

Electronic books (e-books) are electronic texts that are made available on the Internet and on CD-ROM. They are similar to text books in that they combine text with definitions, background information, and images. The advantages of e-books are:

  • It is easy to manoeuvre among book sections and chapters, as well as to examine references by following links;
  • E-books can be easily modified to match the capabilities of students, such as via manipulation of font size;
  • They are generally enhanced with extra, embedded resources such as definitions and other details.
Content example: The Tata Computer-based Functional Literacy Programme, India

In this programme, computers deliver the lessons in multi-media form, supplemented with textbooks. Audio voice-overs explain how letters combine to give structure and meaning to various words, and they pronounce the words. The emphasis is on words rather than alphabets. Lessons are designed to be visually stimulating and entertaining, using elements such as puppets. The lessons, which are based on material developed by the National Literacy Mission, focus on different languages and dialects.

Through the project, a number of learning centers have been established. Each center has a computer and an instructor. Because the project relies on computer programs, it has less need for highly trained teachers, which is an advantage in areas that lack teachers. A typical class has 15 to 20 people and is held in the evening hours.

Source: http://www.tataliteracy.com

Content example: ICT for Illiteracy Eradication (ICT4IE) Egypt30
According to official statistics provided by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the number of illiterate persons in Egypt is 17 million, with women constituting about 70 per cent of that number. The prevalence of illiteracy among women, particularly in very conservative rural and remote areas, and the demonstrated discomfort among many older students in traditional illiteracy eradication classrooms, gave rise to the idea of mobilizing multimedia technology. An educational CD set consists of three CDs; two for illiteracy eradication and a CD that provides an orientation course for preparatory-level schooling. The set can be used in the privacy of the trainee’s home, in a community development center, or at an NGO office.
(See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avtrTyZ-_HE

The CD course is similar to the GALAE (General Authority for Learning and Adult Education) official course, which enables the students to enter the GALAE exams and become IE certified. The multimedia course duration is four months (compared with 10 months for the traditional course). One of the target groups comprises rural women and women in deprived areas. Due to social customs and traditions, some women remain unreached, since they are not allowed to leave home to attend illiteracy classes.

To overcome this obstacle, innovative solutions that recognize local norms were developed. One tool, called a ”Tabluter,” was based on the traditional wooden table known as the tablya. It is a customized, ergonomic, embedded computer on a table. The embedded computer is a single Central Processing Unit that runs for four independent users. Each user is equipped with his/her own screen, keyboard, mouse and sound card. The Tabluter is situated in an individual home where IT classes and illiteracy eradication classes are being held, thus reaching those women who are not allowed to leave the homestead.



26 See UNESCO Bangkok. "ICT and Literacy." ICT in Education. 2007 for further information, country research studies were conducted in China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico and Brazil.
27Source: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001529/152921e.pdf
28See: Women’s use of information and communication technologies in Mozambique: a tool for empowerment? By Gertrudes Macueve et al, in African Women and ICTs: investigating technology, gender and empowerment edited by Ineke Buskens and Anne Webb – available on http://www.idrc.ca/openebooks/399-7
30Lina Zalat: Effective Practices for Engendering the Digital Divide, Eqypt ICT4D Journal 2009