Today is International Literacy Day, instituted by UNESCO to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals and communities. In the fifty years since the day it was first celebrated, UNESCO has reported real improvements in literacy, and last year estimated the global rate to be 86.3%. But this statistic belies the exclusion and inequality experienced in some parts of the world and some sections of society. In sub-Saharan Africa, UNESCO estimates the literacy rate to be only 64.0%, and everywhere, men are still far more likely to achieve literacy than women. For those of us working in education, the literacy challenge remains very real, and so today we thought we should look at the role of educational technology in this crucial field, through the prism of our own work.
In its recent report Harnessing the Potential of ICTs, UNESCO itself points to “valuable examples of how ICTs can be used creatively and innovatively”1 in adult literacy. No fewer than four of the twenty-six projects in the report involve Avallain technology and we will focus upon these to show the challenge, our response, and the outcome. As you will see, each project involves content generated by the programme’s own staff in Avallain Author, which was then delivered to learners on the Avallain Unity platform.
KENYA: community empowerment, literacy and the environment
Challenges: only 75% of children in Kenya graduate from grade 4, of whom around 70% are able to read. Almost two-thirds (61%) of all illiterate adults are women. The society faces significant environmental threats, for which its communities are ill-prepared, partly due to the education gap. The country’s limited infrastructure and electricity supply act as a barrier to the delivery of ICT-based education.
Response: in 2009, Avallain partnered with CORDIO, an organization providing community training with a focus on literacy and the environment. Avallain Author enabled CORDIO’s field workers to create simulations based on real-life community issues and challenges. Working offline on “100 dollar” laptops, which have a long battery life, learners might be asked to fill in forms, complete activities and solve problems, all in support of a practical goal. True to community tradition, learners do not work alone but in groups, supported by facilitators who encourage group discussion and collaboration. All of these activities promote environmental awareness, while improving literacy, numeracy, language and ICT skills.
Outcomes: according to the UNESCO report, the programme has delivered marked benefits, particularly for women. Previously illiterate women are now able to read and write basic sentences and use ICT, and their numeracy and language skills have improved. In these ways the programme has also enhanced the employability of participants, while improving the community’s internal communications, and engagement with wider society.
GERMANY: “Ich Will Lernen” – personalized, lifelong learning for all
Challenges: Despite Germany’s impressive educational record, 9% of students are unable to complete their studies. Because of this, in 2004 an estimated 4 million young people and adults were functionally illiterate. Stigma and family commitments make re-entry into formal education extremely difficult.
Response: The German Adult Education Association (GAEA) launched the “Ich Will Lernen” (“I want to Learn”) programme, to deliver lifelong basic and secondary education via the Internet. The resulting free online portal offers youths and adults daily learning packages in the subjects of German, Math and English, selected from more than 31,000 activities authored in Avallain Author. The learning environment, built on Avallain Unity, delivers flexible, self-regulated courses at 16 learning levels. Students may choose from online-only learning with online facilitators, or courses based at one of around 1,000 adult education centres across Germany. The programme benefits from a rigorous process of continuous review, driven by facilitators and learners, which keeps it fresh and responsive in a rapidly changing digital and social landscape.
Outcomes: Encouraged by the portal’s anonymity and personalized learning experience, approximately 500,000 learners have used it to develop their skills since 2004. The programme continues to build for the future, and has trained hundreds of trainers and facilitators. In addition, more than 1,400 teachers across Germany continue to use it in their courses. It has won three prestigious awards for its work: the Comenius medal, the European e-Learning Award, and the national Digita.
IRELAND: fighting the stigma of adult learning, with WriteOn
Challenges: Despite a period of investment lasting almost 20 years, a recently released OECD survey of adult skills suggests that 4.3% of Irish adults are below level 1 proficiency in literacy, and 13.2% are only at level 1. The stigma of learning as an adult, and a lack of faith in formal education, both play a large part in excluding potential learners from the education system.
Response: In 2008, the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) launched an online distance learning initiative called WriteOn. NALA’s team of educators used Avallain Author to develop the content for the portal, which launched in just 5 months. The learning environment, delivered on Avallain Unity, first assesses the student’s level of ability, and then supports them with structured online activities, digital workbooks and online one-to-one tutoring to proficiency levels 2 and 3. The workbooks and courses employ practical, real-world scenarios to ensure that learners are able to apply their skills. They may also pursue topics of particular interest to drive their learning, rather than being confined to a single path. Students are encouraged to work online only, or to use WriteOn as a blended programme, supported by one of 180 learning centres across Ireland. Each year, the service benefits from three rounds of internal and external review, ensuring that it remains responsive and current.
Outcomes: since its inception, more than 32,000 students have enrolled, and 2,500 of those have gone on to obtain 14,500 certificates at literacy levels 2 and 3. UNESCO reports that WriteOn has achieved “nationwide recognition” and highlights its “highly personalized approach” allowing learners to learn in a way that suits their lifestyles. The report concludes that WriteOn has done much to overcome the “stigmatized image” of literacy learning and the “negative associations” of formal education.
TURKEY: offering a second chance at literacy and numeracy
Challenges: In Turkey the formal education system struggles with extremely high school absence rates, averaging at 73 days per student, per year. All too many students fail to complete their education, and in 2012, there were 3.8 million adults who had never completed primary education. 2.8 million of them could not read or write, and 80% of those were women.
Response: in 2011, the Mother Child Education Foundation approached Avallain to help them develop the “Web-based Literacy Programme” (WBLP), a free online portal aimed at boosting literacy and numeracy skills among adults. Its 5,500 activities, created in Avallain Author, deliver 360 hours of instruction: the entire content of the equivalent face-to-face adult literacy programme. WBLP prepares students for two levels of literacy exams, which act as a gateway back into formal education. The programme also responds to the 96% of students surveyed who expressed a desire to improve their ICT skills. The Avallain Unity platform provides a structured and easy-to-use learning experience, supported by intuitive navigation and tools such as text-to-speech. With the help of online tutors, 75% of students learn entirely online, overcoming factors such as family obligations or distance, which might otherwise exclude them from education. The programme also acts as a blended solution, working with face-to-face literacy programmes in adult education centres.
Outcomes: By November 2013, WBLP had 6,800 students, of whom 75% were women. 52% of all learners had never gone to school. A pilot study in 2012 showed that WBLP students were able to develop their ICT skills while achieving the same literacy and numeracy proficiencies as those in less accessible, more costly face-to-face classes. Many WBLP students have taken the second level literacy exam, re-opening their access to formal education.
Re-opening an avenue to education and self-improvement
It is heartening to reflect on these achievements in the field of adult literacy, but we know that there is much more to be done. These and other projects tell us that educational technology, when done well, provides unique opportunities to overcome the stigma and exclusion that so often surrounds adult learning. It offers the flexibility to fit with the busy, responsible lives of adults, wherever they are, and for many, it re-opens an avenue to education and self-improvement.
Our engagement in Adult Literacy began in 2004, and this year we are deepening our commitment by establishing the Avallain Foundation.