SEATTLE — Digital literacy in the developing world plays an important role in economic growth, social progress and the expansion of knowledge. The past few decades have marked a huge increase in the use of communication technologies worldwide; however, the benefits of digital technology can only be realized if the user has the skills and competencies that they require.
Digital literacy means having the ability to use technology in order find resources, critically evaluate these sources and create information. In fact, UNESCO considers digital literacy a necessary life skill to succeed in this technology-driven era. World leaders must not only place emphasis on gaining access to these technologies but also in providing training to utilize these services to their full potential.
As the digital divide continues to narrow globally, those without the skills necessary to use these digital services are falling further and further behind. Households with higher levels of education are much more likely to use the internet and other information technologies, providing them with even more opportunity than their uneducated counterparts.
Further, men in the developing world are 25 percent more likely to engage in the digital world than women. Race and income level also have a huge influence on digital competence even when groups have access to the same technologies. These pre-existing divides are only being worsened by a lack of education for digital literacy in the developing world.
Not only does increasing digital literacy in the developing world open doors for employment and education, but it also allows for social reform and a highly democratic method of disseminating information. A Muslim woman from Iran recently posted a photo of herself holding a scarf to symbolize her freedom from wearing the hijab. The photo circulated the global community and allowed her to begin a movement with more than 230,000 followers in solidarity of her freedom to wear what she wants. This online movement required extensive knowledge of how social media works and how to achieve the greatest reach via digital technologies.
Literacy represents the primary area of concern when it comes to the internet in the developing world, as more than 80 percent of illiterate adults live in developing countries. As a result, these populations are unable to make use of free online information sources without the ability to interpret the information or use online resources.
Large companies like Intel have taken it upon themselves to implement scalable programs to increase digital literacy in the developing world. One program, called “She Will Connect” provides women with digital literacy skills while raising awareness of the issue among other segments of the population. Its approach features an online gaming platform and peer network to make the learning process more incentivized and enjoyable.
An obvious solution to the issue of digital illiteracy in the developing world is to increase training programs to educate users on the skills necessary to use their devices; however, programs like these can be costly and ineffective for poor families in rural communities.
Leaders of emerging economies are collaborating with mobile phone companies in an effort to combat digital illiteracy and narrow the digital divide. Mobile internet designers have started to focus more on visual cues, such as pictures or videos, to replace the use of text. Further, phone providers have started offering services that translate voice commands into text for illiterate users. Both consumers and providers of digital technologies are benefitting from these developments as demand increases among illiterate users.
As access to information technologies becomes more widespread, government officials and technology companies must be wary of digital illiteracy in developing countries. While accessing these technologies can still be a challenge in rural areas, the real issue lies in a community’s ability to utilize modern technology after it is given access. Programs to teach digital literacy can be important, but technology must also be refined to fit the needs and skills of those in developing countries in order to decrease this newly emerging gap.
– Sarah Coiro