Thursday, 25 June 2015

The future of... Literacy

Education is defined as the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life. 
Literacy is to have the ability to read and write. Functional Literacy can be defined as the ability to read with true comprehension as well as to advance to higher levels of education.

The 2 states, of being educated and being literate, are frequently conflated but can actually be mutually exclusive. For example - many traditional occupations in India like building masons, carpenters, artisans and so on have inherited their knowledge from previous generations through word of mouth, training and practice. They are well-educated in their field of expertise and can earn a living from it. 

Kakuben Jivan Ranmal working with other textile artisans at the 
Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Trade Facilitation Center, India, 2010
Image: SEWA
Many of them are also illiterate, lacking the ability to write their name and signing with a thumbprint instead. Virtually all of them can count and do mental arithmetic but may not be able to actually write down numbers and calculations.

To delve deeper into the anatomy of illiteracy, one can consider the case of the street-side booksellers present in every city and town in India. Some are illiterate and some can read their native language. However they all stock material in  English. So how does an illiterate bookseller find the publication that a customer is looking for if they can't read the titles? 

The question was posed to one such lady who used to operate a large road-side book and magazine depot on the street outside the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad. She had arrived in the city from her village not knowing a word of any language except her native Gujarati and completely illiterate. Most of her stock was in English for the students from IIM who came from all over the country. The institute also hosted foreign students occasionally which may be why she also had books in German and French. Of course, she couldn't read herself so it was all Greek to her.

Second-hand bookseller on Pycrofts Road, Chennai

She had learned to recognise the names of the books and authors as images or Pictograms. She knew what the words "Frederick Forsyth" written in Latin script looked like as a picture even written in different fonts and colours - and she could then retrieve his books. Essentially what she was doing was recognising symbols or icons just as computer-literate folks have learned to associate the icon of an envelope with emails.

Also, the illiterate lady bookseller would have no problems whatsoever operating touch screen interfaces which are usually all icons and few words. She would be able to use apps which were voice-based and could speak into the phone to automatically transliterate and send texts and emails. Articles & books would be read to her using the common functionality provided for the visually-impaired. And, of course, she could always "read" audio-books. 
The humble thumb-print that she uses to sign all her legal documents as an illiterate citizen is now being used by the most tech-savvy folks to unlock their computers and enter their buildings. Online & offline technologies are all working towards perfecting digital signatures to remove just this very need to have someone physically "sign" their name. Yet one of the basic tests for literacy is the ability to sign one's name.

To that end, what modern technology has done is quite astonishing. Being illiterate is no longer any barrier to using information technology even when the user can neither read nor write information. One can even claim that technology appears to be perfectly designed for use by the illiterate and may even be encouraging illiteracy. If she has access to a touch-screen phone, does our lady bookseller even need to learn how to read and write?

In fact, complaints have been made that modern teenagers are so used to the technology doing their work for them - predictive text & Siri etc. - that some of them are now functionally illiterate even while attending school because they have not developed the ability to read or write properly. Any educator who has received an essay in "text-speak" can attest to that.

One of the reasons this state of affairs has come about is probably because much of modern software and hardware is designed to be intuitive and "user-friendly" to the point where even pre-school toddlers should be able to use them without having pre-existing knowledge of any kind whatsoever -  let alone that of the written language. After all, we were all illiterate when we were born.

So what does this mean for the definition of literacy? If a poor citizen in the developing world is tech-savvy and tech-literate (as many of them are with their mobile phones) but not able to read and write - are they really illiterate? Does the definition of literacy need to be re-examined in the modern context?

Also, how will technology change the future of illiteracy. Will it perpetrate more of the same or even exacerbate the condition as defined traditionally? Or will it be used to impart literacy in the most orthodox sense of the word.

Author: Shahana Dastidar

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