International Literacy Day Conference Harps on Literacy, Digital Skills for Human-Centred Recovery

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Ms Stefania Giannini
UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education

The 2021 International Literacy Day (ILD) Conference has put literacy and digital skills at the heart of COVID-19 pandemic recovery by shedding light on the need to promote digital skills as part of literacy in today’s increasingly digitalized society.

Ms Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education; Ms Koumbou Boly Barry, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education; and Mr. Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division of Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO all reaffirmed this.

The Conference, with the theme: ‘Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide’ was held online on September 8 and 9, 2021 to celebrate International Literacy Day.

An important message passed during the Conference was the centrality of literacy to a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Ms Giannini noted: “We are no longer in emergency mode but rather adapting to a new reality of working, living and of course learning, with unprecedented reliance on technology. We are learning the ropes of resilience to face uncertainty and shape a more sustainable and fair future – one that leaves no one behind. This is only possible by putting people at the center and striking the right relationship with technology.” 

It pointed out that the rapid shift to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a steep rise in technology-enabled literacy learning, which has generated increased demands for digital skills. This was also highlighted by a trend analysis of nominated applications of the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes 2021.

Participants also recognized literacy and education as an enabler to achieve other rights and cited stories of Gogo, a 98-year-old primary school pupil from Kenya and Ms Hassina Sherjan, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Aid Afghanistan for Education, Afghanistan, that showed how fulfilling the right to literacy can transform people’s life.

The two-day virtual conference brought together more than 600 participants, including Ms Koumbou Boly Barry, H.E. Ms Maria Victoria Angulo, Minister of National Education, Colombia; H.E. Mr Tiago Brandão Rodrigues, Minister of Education, Portugal; Mr Mamadou Binaté, Director of Cabinet at the Ministry of National Education and Literacy, Cote d’Ivoire; as well as representatives of governments, development partners, experts, educators and learners from around the globe. The conference was also an opportunity to reimagine literacy teaching and learning in our increasingly digitalized society.

Its special session on the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes welcomed the six 2021 Laureates from Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Mexico and South Africa, as well as Mr John Benseman, the Chair of the 2021 International Jury, and the Ambassadors of Permanent Delegations of the Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China which supported the Prizes.  

Participants explored how literacy could contribute to building a solid foundation for a human-centred recovery and reflected on what would make policies and programmes more inclusive and relevant for promoting literacy, which in today’s society also includes digital skills. Discussions illuminated the widened digital divide and other forms of inequalities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms Giannini noted in her opening remarks that: “Education is a right. And, literacy is the foundation of all learning. It is discovery and empowerment. It expands choices and freedoms.”

Several participants pointed out that there is persistent digital divide that requires narrowing the skills gaps in addition to improvement of infrastructure, affordability of digital devices, applications, and networks, as well as safety and security measures.

The conference also emphasized that working together, across sectors, constituencies, disciplines, and geographical boundaries, can make a difference in tackling multifaceted literacy challenges and gave examples of successful multistakeholder partnerships such as the ‘Learning Coin’ programme for marginalized and out-of-school children and young people in Thailand, the European Basic Skills Network (EBSN), and UNESCO’s Global Alliance for Literacy within the Framework of Lifelong Learning.

The Conference highlighted the need for literacy for deep reading as well as analytical and critical thinking, regarding the future of literacy learning and teaching. It pointed out that basic literacy skills for merely encode, decode and understand simple texts are not sufficient for people to navigate in life, work and learning in the current scientifically and technologically advanced societies.

Ms Maryanne Wolf, from the UCLA in the United States of America, in her contribution stressed the importance of ‘deep reading skills’, for which the understanding and appropriate use of the print and digital mediums, together with empathy, is crucial as they can influence differently learning of a writing system and the brain development.

Mr. Sobhi Tawil, Director of Future of Learning and Innovation Team at UNESCO stated that future literacy is not only a tool for ‘learning to learn’. He said to adapt to rapid social transformations and shape our futures that are socially just and environmentally sustainable, it must be a tool for unlearning what perpetuate in our society, such as discrimination, exclusion, and unsustainable behaviours.

Ms Amna Habiba, a representative of the UNESCO Youth Community from Pakistan said that the futures with technology can promise a lot to us, but “most of all, free and accessible learning opportunities that pave pathways to technological empowerment in developing countries”.  

Mr Chakroun gave his closing remarks by recalling the critical role that literacy plays for a human-centred recovery saying “Any effort towards recovery has to be about human rights, it’s about recognizing the right to education, the right to lifelong learning and the right to literacy”.

International Literacy Day is an international observance, celebrated September 8 each year. It was declared by UNESCO on 26 October 1966 at the 14th session of UNESCO’s General Conference. The day is to remind the international community of the importance of literacy for individuals, communities and societies, and the need for intensified efforts towards more literate societies. The issue of literacy is a key component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It was celebrated for the first time in 1967.