Blog: International Literacy Day – The COVID-19 Pandemic, the Intersection of Literacy and the Digital Divide
By Susan Wright
Literacy is foundational for individuals to participate in certain forms of learning, work, and social activities through reading and writing. UNESCO (2022) defines literacy as:
“A means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated information-rich and fast changing world.”
Education systems are one of the pillars for helping young learners gain the tools of literacy. During COVID-19, 90% of the global population encountered learning disruptions (UNESCO, n.d.b,) and as Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO, notes due to these disruptions individuals, especially those from vulnerable populations, may have stopped pursuing or dropped out of education programs (UNESCO, n.d.a). Prior to the pandemic, digital technology was becoming more central to global society. During the pandemic, access to digital services became more significant as major shifts to learning, working, and socializing online occurred. As online learning has risen, for vulnerable populations and those who cannot access the online world it is important to question: what impact is this having on literacy development?
Key points of Literacy
- Efforts have been made to increase literacy globally with an increase from 68% of the global population being able to read and write to 86% in 2019 (UNESCO, 2022; UNESCO, n.d.b). However, there are still 771 million people globally who cannot read or write, two-thirds being women (UNESCO, 2022).
- Literacy in Alberta: The Government of Alberta’s Literacy Framework
- The Government of Alberta introduced the Literacy Framework in 2009 with four goals: “ Increase literacy,  build awareness.  enhance opportunities,  facilitate partnerships” (Government of Alberta, 2014, p. 2).
- The Government of Alberta is hoping with the Literacy Framework that 70% of Albertans will have level 3 literacy by 2020 (Government of Alberta, 2014). The results from this should be illustrated in the next International Adult Literacy Survey, the last survey was released in 2013 and the next will be released in 2023 (Government of Alberta, 2022).
- From the 2013 International Adult Literacy Survey Results, Alberta ranked the highest in Canada for literacy and among the top in the world (Government of Alberta, 2014).
- Youth literacy rates in low-income countries and the gender gap continue to have lower literacy rates (UNESCO, n.d.b).
Literacy, COVID-19, and the Digital Divide
- Digital literacy refers to one’s ability to understand, use, and participate in to both the cultural and structural components of the digital world.
- The digital divide refers to one’s lack of ability to access the digital world. This ranges from one’s ability to understand digital culture to one’s ability to physically access the internet.
Literacy is a form of empowerment that enables individuals to communicate, learn, socialize, work, and more. Literacy is not something that is only learned during childhood but continues throughout all phases of life and through engagement with new technological developments. Many individuals who have low levels of literacy do not realize how this will impact their lives, for this reason, it is important to raise awareness among all people (Government of Alberta, 2014).
UNESCO explains how the impacts of the pandemic could cause individuals, particularly young women, to not continue to receive formal education. Currently, the digital divide in Canada is visible through the digital infrastructure, with households in rural communities having lower levels of access than Canada’s average as only 37% of households in rural Alberta have proper access to the internet (Reiger, 2021). Moreover, in Indigenous communities, only 24% of households have proper access to the internet (Reiger, 2021). For those who are unable to access internet technology, it creates a barrier to completing online learning. As UNESCO (2021) discusses in the YouTube video, “International Literacy Day 2021: Literacy for a human centred-recovery: Narrowing the digital divide,” although digital technology and platforms helped to continue learning during the pandemic, it also highlighted the digital divide. The digital divide illustrates the barriers that vulnerable populations have when trying to access the internet and further creates barriers to accessing education and learning resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more from UNESCO about the impact of literacy and the digital divide during COVID, watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spAAxgGZ4HI&t=1s
What impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on literacy is still to be determined, and we may not see the full impact of results for a few years as research continues. UNESCO (2022) will be conducting a global survey, “Learning from the COVID-19 crisis to write the future: National policies and programmes for youth and adult literacy,” to gain a better understanding of the impacts of the transition to the online world during the pandemic. The International Adult Literacy Survey, which is used by the Government of Alberta to assess adult literacy competency (2022), will also be an important resource moving forward to understand if there was an impact on literacy during COVID-19. As studies continue, it will be important to continue to monitor how COVID-19 has impacted the digital divide and literacy.
To Learn More :
- Youth Literacy: Government of Alberta, Education, Literacy Support Documents, some highlights are:
- Conversation Guide – Literacy: A World to Discover (facilitation guide)
- Conversation Guide – Literacy in a Digital World (facilitation guide)
- Literacy First: A Plan for Action (report)
- UNESCO International Literacy Day Event, “Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces: https://events.unesco.org/event?id=2036446720&lang=1033
- Connect Society’s Literacy Program: https://www.connectsociety.org/edmonton-programs/edmonton-literacy-programs/
Susan Wright (she/her) has a Master of Information degree (2019) from the University of Toronto with a specialization in Critical Information Policy Studies. Susan focused her research in her classes on how individuals find and understand information surrounding health, specifically related to individuals’ relationship to food.
Government of Alberta. (2022). International Adult Literacy Survey Results. https://www.alberta.ca/international-adult-literacy-survey-results.aspx
Government of Alberta. (2014). Living Literacy: A Literacy Framework for Alberta’s Next Generation Economy: The Report 2009–2013. http://www.iae.alberta.ca/post-secondary/community/publications.aspx.
Rieger, S. (2021, Sep 19). Canada’s digital divide is stark – and rural residents say fixing it must be an election priority. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/rural-internet-access-1.6181426
UNESCO. (n.d.a). International Literacy Day. https://www.unesco.org/en/days/literacy-day.
UNESCO. (n.d.b). International Literacy Day 2021: Literacy for a human centred-recovery: Narrowing the digital divide: Fact Sheet. https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/ild-2021-fact-sheet.pdf
UNESCO. (2022). What you need to know about literacy. https://www.unesco.org/en/education/literacy/need-know
UNESCO [UNESCO]. (2021, Sep 9). International Literacy Day 2021: Literacy for a human centred-recovery: Narrowing the digital divide [Video]. YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spAAxgGZ4HI&t=1s