By: Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim, Chairman of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue
September 8 2017, GENEVA - The vision of a literate world has guided the United Nations in its efforts to eliminate illiteracy worldwide. According to UNESCO, the world literacy rate now stands at 91% up from 79% in 1980. In the Arab region, the literacy rate is currently at 86%; a 22% increase from 1980 where the literacy rate stood at 64%. Although world society has witnessed significant progress in eradicating illiteracy, approximately 750 million adults and 264 million children worldwide are still considered as illiterate. Thus, the cloud of world illiteracy overshadows the geography of world poverty. Nonetheless, the Sustainable Development Goals have translated the vision of a literate world into a concrete action-plan: Sustainable Development Goal 4.6 calls upon all member States of the United Nations to ensure that youth, both men and women, “achieve literacy and numeracy” by 2030. In the words of former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan
“Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”
The 2017 World Literacy Day addresses a subject that is even more important today owing to the digitalization of our societies. This year’s theme “Literacy in a digital world” explores the transformative power of communication and information technology in addressing illiteracy. In my previous role as the Minister of Education of the United Arab Emirates, numerous initiatives and projects were implemented to empower youth through enhancing literacy in the age of information. The vision was to enable youth to read, reflect and think as the first step towards building a society for the future. Eliminating illiteracy is an investment in educating humanity and in promoting a sustainable future. Access to technology is a prerequisite for a knowledge-based society.
The introduction of digital technologies – against the backdrop of globalization – has brought peoples closer as communication and exchange of information have become seamless. We are more connected than ever. In a heartbeat, we can buy our favourite book on the Internet, read articles on Kindle or even read newspapers on the airplane. The teaching environments in today’s modern classrooms have been transformed, thanks to the Internet. Students now have access to the latest information technology to increase their learning capabilities and gain knowledge through electronic means. Inevitably, digitalization has simplified access to information and knowledge and contributed to the alleviation of literacy at a faster rate than was the case in the past.
Digitalization has also facilitated the emergence of a new concept commonly referred to as digital literacy. Cornell University in the United States defines the latter as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.” It has transformed our traditional understanding of literacy – the ability to read and write – to also include the capability of effectively using technological devices to communicate and access information.
Inevitably, youth – at an early stage of their lives – are not adequately equipped with the required skills to critically analyze or question the validity of information available on the Internet. In this regard, youth are becoming vulnerable to the growing and alarming increase in self-radicalization that occurs through the use of Internet and social media. Online propaganda and ideological inspiration from sources controlled by right-wing and terrorist groups are increasingly exposing youth to heinous ideologies. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have repeatedly warned against the phenomenon of Internet radicalization requiring “a proactive and coordinated response from Member States.” In world society’s attempts to address illiteracy, the ability to learn and to write needs also to include critical thinking so as to avoid self-radicalization which is emerging as a major social ill.
We must respond to the rise of Internet radicalism that is emerging as an invisible force inciting youth to join violent and radical groups whether in the Middle East or in Europe. Supportive settings and safe learning environments fostering social inclusion, open-mindedness and equal citizenship rights are important prerequisites in creating conditions protecting youth from falling prey to misguided ideologies. Critical thinking needs to be integrated in pedagogical teaching methodologies targeted towards youth. Literacy is not a static concept, it evolves in line with the developments of society. Strengthening digital literacy and critical thinking among youth is an investment in the future and one of the solutions to promote enlightenment, cope with radicalization in today’s digital age and realize the vision of a world that both prospers and is at peace with itself.