Literacy for a human-centred recovery: how education systems can build back better

Digital literacy can act as a catalyst by enabling the acquisition of other important life skills

Literacy is about more than just knowing how to read. It’s about understanding, engaging, thinking critically, and expressing oneself. It’s a core capability that allows us to function in the modern world.

Developing strong literacy skills is constant work – we learn from infancy through to old age. Along the way, human interaction is key. It stimulates language development, helps young children make connections between sounds and symbols, stimulates curiosity and motivation, and hones analytical and critical thinking skills.

So imagine what a blow it was for young people to have their schooling disrupted for a year or more during the pandemic. The lucky few managed classes online, albeit with varying degrees of success without the intense social interaction that’s an important part of learning. But for those who fell on the wrong side of the digital divide, the disruption could be life changing.

The increasing role of technology in a post-COVID education system

We had most often thought of technology as a tool to enrich education, not a pre-condition for getting education. The pandemic changed that. Although schools around the world have re-opened in fits and starts, it’s likely to be a long road of return to full-time, in-person learning. Let’s also remember that there are many other circumstances around the world that prevent children from being physically present in school – buildings that are not accessible to children with disabilities, conflicts that displace children, natural disasters that occur with increasing frequency, and even kidnappings that make schools unsafe in some areas.

The ability to connect online seems to have become essential to ensure continuity of education. So can we do it better? What would a more human-centred (partially) online education look like?

A human-centred approach to education

The Education Commission Asia is testing the concept of ‘high touch, high tech for all’. It’s an experiment to provide students with a personalised learning experience wherein much of the content is offered through adaptive learning technology and teachers are given more space to focus on active, higher order, and soft skills for students. The Commission notes “the former tailors instruction to individual learning levels and needs, allowing students to progress at their own pace; the latter provides students with the human touch component necessary for a holistic learning experience.”

This way of thinking about education shifts the balance of a teacher’s work from a supplier of content to a coach for students, guiding them to build skills and understanding. In many school systems, it would signal a massive change in the teacher-student relationship. It would bring more resources to students and give them more agency in the learning process.

This might sound like a pipedream to students in poorer countries whose chances for schooling have been compromised, but the real nightmare is that the current crisis drags on, and another follows its steps.

Closing the digital divide by combining tech and human capabilities

The pieces are actually coming together for the dream to come true. Education innovators like Khan Academy, edX, and PhET are learning more and more about how to combine technological and human capabilities to provide quality, affordable education.  School systems are expanding but need to define a new balance between physical and digital infrastructure – with an eye toward quality, inclusion and cost-effectiveness. Internet access is expanding, but needs to become affordable, and even considered as much as a human right as we consider housing, water and electricity – and with it, low-cost devices for all students. Teacher training standards are slowly rising, but governments need to make it a priority to build an effective and motivated teaching force – one that’s equipped for the digital age.

Although it will take investment and hard work, a human-centred recovery is within our grasp. Education systems can build back better. They can be more engaging and creative – and they can be more resilient.

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