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Literacy on the digital screen is more than just reading and writing

Today (September 8) is International Literacy Day — and it reminds of not only of the importance of reading, writing, numeracy, and instruction, but of the importance of understanding another type of literacy that is becoming increasingly important to function, explore, and thrive in our modern world — a digital literacy.

In May of this year we (as a planet) hit 3 billion Internet users. Back in 2013, we hit the 7 billion mark for mobile cellular subscriptions – and while clearly not the case that every man, woman, and child on the planet has a mobile phone, the tide is certainly swelling at the planetary level.

But the distribution of access to digital services, the Internet in general, and the technologies that make it work are unequal and often intimidating. The ‘waters’ of connectivity are uneven and choppy, and navigating them –especially for youth and young students who have the most to gain – requires a basic competency with not just reading and writing and basic literacy, but of networks, technologies, and the building blocks and structures of the Internet.

In 2015 so far, more than 1,000 Peace Corps Volunteers (nearly 1-out-of-6) report on having taught, tutored, trained their counterparts and students, facilitated workshops, camps, clubs, and activities or helped to create, run, or assist in computer labs and libraries – all under the umbrella of “digital literacy”. This amounts to nearly 2,000 unique ‘activities’ in 60 countries where Volunteers serve. (these are preliminary numbers are from a forthcoming report from the Peace Corps on ICT4D activities.)

Peace Corps Volunteer assisting student at Camp Sky in Malawi, 2015

In the world of the Peace Corps (to countries where we are asked), many Volunteers are seeing their communities, counterparts, and neighbors get online for the first time.

But ‘getting online’ is not a binary switch – and to say that a given population, person, youth, or child ‘has access’ might actually mask more than it reveals.

Connectivity is a function of many things – including cost, bandwidth and latency, the particular device and all of its associate features (or insufficiencies), time, learning curves for use, attitudes, and the user experience. My favorite analogy connectivity comes from ‘an xiao mina’ who says that the Internet is like water – global, with extreme differences in access.

Guatemala Youth taking during an ICT lesson from a Volunteer, 2015

The Volunteers in the communities in which they live and serve see first-hand how the enthusiasm originating from their counterparts and schools for digital services is tempered by the realities of access.

This, for many, shapes the first rung of their experience with digital tools and online services.

The proportion of the global population covered by at least a 2G mobile-cellular network grew from 58% in 2001 to 95% in 2015. Opportunities abound even in resource-strapped environments to communicate, learn, and benefit via mobile technologies – be they computers, smartphones, feature phones, tablets, and/or e-readers. This number is expected to reach 80% by 2020.

Understanding how to extract value out of the spectrum of connectivity will have an outsized influence on the extent to which people are empowered by digital services, rather than feeling overwhelmed (or indeed, often underwhelmed by them) – thus gauging our ability to either widen or narrow the digital divide.

The Peace Corps Volunteers do an amazing job translating their enthusiasm for digital tools and solutions, the clear and identified needs and requests of their host-country communities to empower them with lessons and tutorials on how to get more from available services, and doing so in an environment that might in many ways be unfamiliar to the Volunteer and their experience with connectivity and access.

Solar Spell project in Micronesia and Vanuatu, 2015

Projects like Solar Spell in Micronesia and Vanuatu are putting solar-charged digital libraries into the hands of Volunteer teachers. Camp TechKobwa in Rwanda helps youth learn technology literacy over two weeks in the summer every year. Last year, a team of four girls in Moldova, coached by a Volunteer, won the global Technovation challenge in app development, having developed an app to assess water quality in different areas of their community. Volunteers are using Offline Wikipedia, Khan Academy Offline, MIT Scratch, and more their everyday teaching.

And while these examples stand out as exceptional, they belie perhaps the most typical example of a Volunteer having an impact around digital literacy – that of the Volunteer patiently sitting with a student in front of a screen, patiently teaching them how to type, how to use a mouse, and time-and-connectivity permitting, how to conduct their own first search.

Camp TechKobwa, Rwanda 2015