At the 2015 UNESCO Mobile Learning Week, I sat on a panel about literacy. Below are my speaking notes. Thank you to Ms Saniye Gülser Corat, Director for Gender Equality at UNESCO, for moderating the panel.
Brief for the panel:
Due to a history of educational inequity, many more women than men are illiterate: globally, 64 per cent of illiterate people are women. Limited access to physical books and other learning materials disproportionately affects women, particularly in developing countries. Cultural norms can make it difficult for girls to leave home in order to attend literacy trainings or participate in outreach activities. Motherhood and assumed family obligations can further prevent women from building literacy skills in formal education settings.
How can mobile learning interventions break through barriers and promote literacy for women and girls in ways that are sustainable and scalable? How can mobile technology help develop essential literacies beyond reading and writing, such as media and technology literacy?
Three basic points I want to make
Much has already been achieved by mobiles for literacy.
The Goethe Institute of Johannesburg last month hosted an mLiteracy Networking Meeting to examine the opportunities and challenges for mobiles to increase literacy development, especially in Africa (see my speaking notes from the meeting).
It was an incredibly valuable, interesting and much-needed gathering by some of the old and new players in this space. The good news is seeing how far mobiles for literacy has come, how it has grown, how many young and old people it is reaching and engaging. How the mobiles for literacy field has not only provided another much needed medium to access reading material, but also allowed readers to comment and write their own pieces. It has given readers a voice, something not possible at such scale or immediacy in the print medium.
Gender sensitive does not equal gender specific.
In many cases we do not need initiatives focused only on women and girls, but rather on women and girls, men and boys. In other words, a holistic approach that is gender sensitive. Of course there is spill-over when particular genders are targeted – as with the example of Business Women, a mobile service for women entrepreneurs in Nigeria that has reached 100,000 women AND to which 20,00 men have also subscribed.
The need for specificity.
We know that local context is a key differentiator. There are different gender-related opportunities and barriers across and within countries, cities and communities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and so when answering questions about improving literacy for women and girls, we need to provide broad enough responses that can be adapted and applied appropriately to specific audiences.
Pearson is playing a key role in improving literacy.
Last year Pearson launched Project Literacy, a five-year campaign to help ensure that by 2030, every child around the world has the support they need to become a literate adult. On the Project Literacy site, almost 200 organisations and people working in literacy have posted their challenges and inspirations.
Three suggestions for how to answer the questions
Take an ecosystem view.
For an initiative to be successful and scalable, it is essential to understand the full range of stakeholders, enablers and constraints in the mliteracy ecosystem. This view is recommended by the UNESCO Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning.
For your initiative, who can increase visibility, lower costs, benefit from your content? Which policies support your work, or hinder it? Who provides the devices that the women and girls use, who supplies the network infrastructure? Which stakeholders have been the hardest to engage with? Interrogating the ecosystem was a key theme of the Goethe Institute mLiteracy Networking Meeting – a sign, I think, of how the mliteracy space has matured.
Target content and programmes.
From Yoza Cellphone Stories, and also other mliteracy projects, we know that the romance genre is very popular. Equally are stories that talk to the social issues of the audience: pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, drugs, mothering, job-seeking, education, etc. Content must be targeted to the communities who we want to consume and engage with it. This does not re-enforce gender stereotypes but rather recognises the different life experiences of women and girls, men and boys, and so normalises and mainstreams differences across these groups.
Content that develops the skills of readers supports the recommendation from the UNESCO Mobile Phone Literacy – Empowering Women and Girls project: “The particular needs of the targeted women and girls must be addressed and life-skills and empowerment opportunities offered.”
Questions for reflection: Give an example of how you have targeted specifically women/men, or girls/boys? And did doing so alienate the other group?
Visibility of resources and opportunities via mobiles remains a challenge – obscurity is the biggest threat to the many excellent initiatives. Visibility includes a number of aspects:
- Marketing: It is essential that women and girls know about the opportunities.
- The need for programmes – offline – that encourage reading, literacy, promote its benefits. Mobile is not a panacea and cannot operate while other barriers – cultural, economic, etc. – are not holistically addressed. Example: The Mobile-Based Post Literacy project by UNESCO in Pakistan first spent a long time engaging the village elders to ensure that they understood and ultimately supported the programme to improve the literacy of adolescent girls via mobile phones. This supports the recommendation from the reports of the UNESCO Mobile Phone Literacy – Empowering Women and Girls project: “Community sensitization and mobilization as well as political support are key ingredients for success.”
- Recognition of mobile as a valid channel for supporting literacy. There are perceptions around the use of mobiles as distracting and undermining education. Research and case studies can change this – in fact this perception is already changing.
Questions for reflection: How have you increased visibility for your project? How have you engaged communities / gatekeepers to sensitize them and seek political support?
A wonderful piece by Anathi Nyadu, a FundZa writer and attendee of the Goethe meeting, describes how he used to have to scrounge newspapers from the bin and steal books to satisfy his love of reading. But he believes his niece will never have to do either, thanks to mobile literacy.