Around the world, there are still 757 million adults and 115 million youths who cannot read or write a simple sentence. Yet the fact remains that boosting literacy rates is the most effective way of breaking the cycle of poverty. On the occasion of International Literacy Day 2015, it is worth remembering Kofi Annan’s definition of literacy as “a bridge from misery to hope.”
Ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education” and promoting “lifelong learning opportunities for all” are two draft targets included in the new Sustainable Development Goals. Tackling illiteracy will play a major part in ensuring these can be achieved. But there is no “one size fits all” solution. The challenges faced in developing countries in particular are myriad: from a shortage of teachers or a lack of infrastructure, through to culturally inappropriate or irrelevant learning materials.
If literacy tools are not tailored to a community’s specific needs, they will not succeed. The key is to take a bottom-up approach, by creating solutions which allow teachers and learners to imagine their own unique answers to this crisis. Here technology can play a significant role.
In 2012, Microsoft’s Director of Worldwide Education Strategy and former schoolteacher Steven Duggan set out to investigate the challenges to universal literacy. As a result of conversations with international organizations such as UNESCO, USAID and World Vision, and dialogue with schoolteachers and students (documented in the award-winning film The First Mile), the Literacy for Life Partnership was established.
This initiative focuses on developing sustainable, relevant, culturally-appropriate and scalable solutions to addressing illiteracy. One of these is Chekhov, a free tool which allows anyone, anywhere to write, publish and distribute a dynamic eBook which can be used by learners across the globe to develop their literacy skills.
Chekhov is specifically designed to overcome traditional barriers to literacy. It can be used across different platforms, meaning learners are not dependent on a specific technology – this is particularly important where people rely on low-cost, battery-powered mobile devices. It runs in the cloud, allowing learners to create, upload and download their stories and those of others from across the globe. And to circumvent connectivity issues, all of Chekhov’s content creation and consumption features are designed to work offline, as well as online.
Most significantly, all new stories can be published in a range of local languages, from Swahili to Sesotho, from Urdu to Irish. In Europe alone, 90 languages are classified as “severely endangered”. And every two weeks another minority language dies. Yet traditional publishers rarely produce textbooks in languages spoken by just a few thousand people. Digital publishing can therefore act as a lifeline for passing on traditional languages and cultures, whether in Europe or further afield.
The use of a digital solution such as Chekhov to tackle illiteracy also has the added bonus of addressing environmental concerns. Enabling communities to create their own learning materials locally reduces the environmental impact of shipping hundreds of thousands of books donated to the developing world.
Of course, using digital innovations to tackle societal challenges depends on having power and connectivity. And this can be a problem without the necessary infrastructure. Alternative solutions, such as the solar-powered TV white space technology deployed in rural Kenya, can overcome these barriers, and ultimately help close the digital divide between the developed and developing worlds.
As Steven Duggan pointed out during his travels, children across the globe often have similar hopes and dreams. They all deserve the chance to realize these: “We cannot restrict the view of an entire generation to a tiny window on the world. We have to insist on the equalization of opportunities.” Once powered up and logged on, technology can act as that equalizer, unlocking the door to a brighter, more sustainable future for all.