Literacy for a human-centered recovery: Narrowing the digital divide

Explore how you and we can come together to make education and digital literacy reach all sections of the society, narrow the divide, and bring the new education revolution leaving no one behind.

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The literacy gap and digital divide are something we all need to ponder upon. It might seem like everyone is pretty much on the same page in terms of these two aspects, but the reality is way farther than our assumptions. Almost 773 million people (including both adults and young people) lack basic literacy skills, 617 million children and adolescents do not have the right set of skills for reading as well as solving mathematical problems, and more than 50% of children, as well as adults, are not learning worldwide. Astonished right? Thus an event was organized by THE ANTS to discuss how the digital and literacy gap can be bridged between the two extremes of the society.  

The event was organized on the International Literacy Day based on the board mission of the United Nations ‘Education for all. The event followed the United Nations’ theme for the International Literacy day- ‘Literacy for a human-centered recovery: Narrowing the digital divide’. 

The guests who put forth their valuable suggestions, knowledge, and provided inspiration to all the viewers were: 

  • Omar Hafiz: Development practitioner, Global Goodwill ambassador (2018), Founder of Steers, Founder of Pi jam foundation (which aims to increase digital literacy) 
  • Arpana Chandail: Who runs a library named ‘Kitab Ghar’, a school in Chenab Valley in J&K. Founder of Sahas NGO. She has also worked as a journalist with prominent media houses. 

Mr. Sharib Suhail, Communications and Media Officer at THE ANTS, commenced the event by welcoming the guests and thanking the audience for being a part of this ‘need of the hour’ event. 

The event started with the very necessary question ‘why is internet creativity important?’ 

Internet creativity: Significance, Need & Self-learning

Mr. Sharib pointed out how the pandemic has widened the digital divide and posed the question to Arpana Chandail about digital creativity and why she has introduced it to her own community as well. 

Ms. Arpana Chandail who joined the event from a remote village in J&K started off by describing how it is common to face internet connectivity issues in remote areas of the nation. Quoting her “I run my own school in this village and when I tried to keep the online classes there was one issue that was being faced by most of the children- the connectivity issues. Few of them did not have access to any digital resources like phones, desktops, and laptops, and those who did usually had just one phone for the entire family. Above all, children are not used to taking online classes and do not feel connected to the curriculum.” 

She further described how even parents weren’t aware of the process and that hampered her efforts to teach the children. She further emphasized the importance of self-learning and how it can help one and also how self-learning is not a common practice in India. She mentioned that if the education policies and curriculum can become more refined and focus on self-learning then there is a huge scope for literacy to penetrate even the remote parts of the nation and the digital divide can be narrowed too.

We need to change the perspective, and also the manner in which things were happening till now to make our educational system a success.

Arpana Chandail, Founder of Sahas NGO”

Information Overload: How to figure out what is important and what is not  

When the question regarding information overload on social media came up, Mr. Omar Hafiz gave his two cents by saying “for a lot of people or precisely for people of our generation Facebook and other social media platforms were solely for messaging. But today they have also become a source of information for many. For instance Twitter- People stay updated about what is happening around it. Too much information is definitely an issue when it comes to social media and digital space. 5-6 years ago we would have never thought that we could gain information from social media but now here we are.” 

He further explained how he and his team handled the emergency situation of 2019 in J&K when access to media and information was suppressed. They distributed pen drives so the students can complete their academics and also reached out on one on one basis. He explained how we can reach out to someone within minutes through the phone but in one such situation they could only reach out to one person at a time. But eventually, things got better, calling was permitted and telecommunication conferencing was allowed followed by the availability of the internet. Even though it wasn’t as smooth as it is supposed to be, the technology still helped us keep going. 

“The overload of the information is the necessary evil and we have to get used to it being a part of our lives”, Omar mentioned. He further told how he has proposed the idea of a hybrid model of education even after the pandemic so one is used to both the ways and can tackle emergency situations without hampering the learning.  

Taking a quote from what Arpana said regarding the connectivity issues, he conveyed that everything happens in phases. We need to penetrate the technology in villages and rural areas through phases only. As now, all things are becoming virtual and anything can happen at any point. 

Arpana also agreed with this idea of a hybrid model of education, she believes it is necessary to impart the skill of self-learning and to be prepared for all kinds of situations. She emphasized how important it is to develop independent learners and thinkers and how we need to stop making students dependent on teachers as well as parents for learning. 

Digital literacy: Narrowing the digital gap, Media literacy & Learning technology 

Mr. Sharib raised a concern about how people in urban areas are fluent with technology but on the other hand, it is a task to even explain its usage in rural areas. So he asked how digital literacy can be taught better or how one can bridge this gap. On this Arpana Chandail enlightened us about her own few initiatives that focus on doing the same. She discussed that besides ‘Kitab Ghar’ she is also working on some other projects namely- BBC Reporter, Fakeshala. 

In Fakeshala she was working on a project where she visited villages where technology has made its way but the people are still not aware of how to use them and also how to differentiate between the right and wrong information. Right now whatever they see on mobile phones the news of any information to them seems true. So she was working on digital literacy and media literacy in those villages. 

She said, “initially it was a bit challenging for people but when they started practicing they got a hold of it. I also observed adults saying that children are learning faster than them. It is because these things like mobile phones and the internet were introduced in our era and we had to learn to use them. But the coming generations are taking birth in their presence, so they are easily getting a hang of it since they have been seeing all this work since they were born.” 

She further added, “It is definitely a task to teach how to use technology but what is even more challenging is to handle the pop-ups of information when mobile phones are in the hands of children. We need to see to it what information should reach them and whatnot. We also have to make parents aware of the same.” 

She discussed that before the pandemic the debate was on how dependent one should be on technology or what is the correct amount of usage of mobile phones and laptops and so on. Now the debate is on what kind of information should be consumed since the exposure to the internet and digital space was for hours during the pandemic. 

“The kids figure out how to play during the online classes and learn to make excuses. In this case, my responsibility increases manifolds”, she added. She further said that not just children but also adults need to keep a check on what information they are consuming and forwarding.

We need to understand that everything that is being served to you on social media and the internet is not true.

Arpana Chandail, Founder of Sahas NGO

On this divide and how kids are able to dodge the online classes, Omar gave his opinion saying, “we might laugh at this childish behavior of children but if we look at the other side then we will understand that the aged teachers who are almost digitally handicapped and had to teach online all of a sudden were facing issues in connecting with children. But this behavior from the students’ end resulted in a lot of this nuisance. Some people left their jobs, others were unable to tackle the pressure, and some couldn’t teach at all.” 

“To mitigate this gap between the information senders and the receivers we need to understand from a marketing perspective. In marketing, we first create a need and then sell the product. For instance, before the pandemic, several families did not have mobile phones but they had to eventually buy them because a need was created. So if you would ask me if the information is being sent and received the right way then I would say partly yes and partly no.”

He discussed how he had the opportunity to organize and attend workshops where he met people from different strata of society. He said that we found out that in elite schools and colleges where people belonging to sound economical backgrounds have actually given a good response to digital learning by making it a part of their curriculum.

Omar said, “I would like to answer your question by counter questioning that are we taking an onus of this information dissemination and filtration, or are we just in the race for the sake of formality? So it’s a matter of taking responsibility as well. We need to think about whether we have pushed this generation to self-learn. Have we capacitated them to understand how to utilize technology?  Just passing the information is not enough as they can simply google that themselves. But the whole point of it is to teach them asynchronous learning. For instance when I would give the assignment to read something I would then have a 30-minute discussion meet over it. Because when you are not instructed to do something a certain way, everyone consumes and understands the information from a different perspective and that opens our eyes to a different aspect of a single piece of information.”

When we will drop this traditional grading system we will actually see significant improvement in the educational sector.

Omar Hafiz

Mr. Ormar concluded by adding that teachers also need to accept that they cannot force every single child to learn the same way. They need to understand the fact that every student is going to learn his own way and have his own understanding of things. The understanding and interpretation of the information would be different but the outcome will be a novel or original thought. Instead of a grading system, we can have an assessment system as per the level of children. 

Further projects: With aid of digital space 

When asked by Mr. Sharib about the projects the guests might take up further and use digital space for them, both Mr. Omar and Ms. Arpana shared about their upcoming projects zealously. 

Arpana Chandail started off by discussing her intent to expand the ‘Kitab Ghar’ initiative. She said, “we are planning to take it to other parts of the state (J&K), remote districts, and small villages. The purpose is to create the availability of books for those people who do not have easy access to them. These books will be both in traditional and digital format. So, the project is inclusive of technology as well which will help in bridging the technology gap. Next, we have a digital library on cards for the time being we are working on.” 

Omar said that his approach would be to reach the areas where they fail because of a lack of technology. “We are coming up with several virtual activities, for example, we started this one virtual league where we play football with children virtually. We are trying to instill competitiveness along with self-learning in the process”, he said.” 

He also talked about another collab which he is doing named- ‘Spreading Smiles’. This is a program run by girls, for girls. Where they provide the girls with cell phones to teach them soft skills. He emphasized that it is an ongoing program and the second circle of it will be introduced soon. 

Mr. Omar then discussed the core program of his organization- The Community Leadership program. In this program they zoom into four things: 

  • Self-exploration
  • Self-acceptance
  • Leadership 
  • Conflict-transformation

This is a program that will help students get started in life early. 

Omar said, “we are going to use the digital space by creating a lot of online resources for students and we have networked with a lot of organizations for the same. All these resources would be free and cover a lot of aspects of learning.”

Zero Hour! 

A common question was asked by many viewers and the guests gave their extensive insights on the same. 

“What we on an individual level can do, to overpass this digital divide?”

To this, Arpana Chandail said that “things won’t change until we change ourselves, we should help others to change, we should help them adapt to what is coming. This realization is the first step of the journey.” She further explained, “we do not necessarily have to go big on our efforts. We can start small and take care of our surroundings themselves. That would be a great thing too.” 

Omar said that we need to take one step at a time. “We need to start with our family, sit with elders, listen to their stories, and teach them the new things”, Omar said. “We need to expose our family to new information and make them acquainted with technology and help them evolve, we need to take up that responsibility”, he added. 

He concluded by saying that acceptance of reality is very important so we can work holistically on it to change it. 

“What are other techniques other than rote learning that we can use to teach children?” 

When asked this question, Aparna Chandail eloquently replied: “Age plays a major role in learning and teaching. We need to get rid of the affection while teaching. Teach the child to accept, to listen, and give them a perspective to understand to help them work out their motor senses. Start teaching through shapes as all the words have circles and straight lines. When they will learn this, they will start enjoying this and come to you on their own to study and read.” 

“If the child is as young as 3-4 years old, then first focus on building a relationship with them. Then start with the teaching and learning process. Develop a relationship with mutual respect and the process further would be smooth. Also, do not pinpoint mistakes as they are a part of the learning process and let them learn their own way. If you’ll pinpoint every step of the way then it will hurt their self-esteem and they will become dependent and become sheep instead of coming up with novel ideas.”

Help the children become creators, not followers.

Arpana Chandail, Founder of Sahas NGO

Omar added, “There are a few stages psychosocial stages of learning, first is trust and mistrust, the second is inclusive of autonomy, ownership, shame, and doubt, and then comes the third stage of initiative vs guilt. You need to keep these three stages in mind during the initial learning years of children. Throughout the process, you need to appreciate, support, and then give feedback to do better.” 

The event came to an end by thanking our esteemed guests for giving their valuable suggestions to the audience and by helping us to take our vision a step forward. 

Here is the video link if you want to witness the live event:

On International Literacy Day: ‘Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide’