Q&A: UNESCO Takes Literacy Fight to Mobile

Posted September 12th, 2014 at 2:46 pm (UTC-5)
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Afghan women sit in a class and study using mobile phones in Kabul, Nov. 3, 2012. (AFP)

Afghan women sit in a class and study using mobile phones in Kabul, Nov. 3, 2012. (AFP)

Cellphones and mobile devices are opening up new avenues to improve people’s lives, particularly among the illiterate. And the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) has been working to harness that mobile power for its literacy programs.

In a chat with TECHtonics, Fengchun Miao, Chief of UNESCO’s ICT Education Unit in Paris sheds light on the agency’s mobile literacy initiative and the challenges it faces.

Q. How did this initiative start?

…About one decade ago, UNESCO realized that emerging technologies hold the potential [to] promote literacy education both in terms of bringing the illiterate people from the kind of vicious cycle and also to improve the quality of literacy learning. So over this decade, we have tried to use different kinds of technology to promote the literacy education programs, including using the traditional technology.

… And in view of the latest developments in this field, we realize more and more that the mobile technology holds more transformative potential for the literacy education.

Q. How does the program work?

Miao: … We will try to work with the multiple stakeholders including the governmental sector and the local community and also some NGOs to view the ecosystem for the – we call it the Mobile Learning Solutions – that are needed to promote literacy education.

… The most important part of the mobile learning solutions will be the content, which will be the mobile learning content. So for this purpose, we will cooperate with the local partners. And very often we will work with the local education authorities or local education institutions to develop for the mobile learning content in the context of literacy education. But more importantly, we also use the local partners to sustain the development and the supply of the mobile learning content.

Q. Have you partnered with tech companies to further promote the literacy program?

Miao: … We have a wide range of partners from the kind of telecom sector, which will provide the discounts or free access to the Internet data or the Internet-based applications. So that’s one of the sectors. And then we are working with some IT companies.

… We are discussing with Microsoft to … try to use the mobile technology to transform the literacy learning in the underserved communities. So we have several principles, including Mobile First and the Cloud First solutions. And also we try to work with a kind of community-driven and nation-led approach to this kind of program.

… We are also launching several projects already to use the mobile technology for literacy in the community learning centers. For example, in Thailand, we are launching a project of using mobile technology for literacy in the remote community learning centers. And the target beneficiaries will be the migrant children in Thailand.

Q. What have you learned from what has been accomplished already?

Miao: … We have been collecting and analyzing the initiatives and the policies that target the using of mobile technology to support women and girls’ literacy, and also moving to the empowerment of these women and girls. We collected about 8-9 cases and we are now finalizing the analysis and documentation of these case studies.

… The equal access to mobile devices and the mobile Internet is a big issue, which means … [for] women and men, the access is not equal … we promote that the governments should ensure that the equal access, and also the equal control over the mobile devices is the foremost issue in the policies.

Secondly … when the people or a company develop this kind of content and applications, they are not thinking of gender issues. Very often they have a kind of gender discrimination or a gender stereotype for women.

… The women and girls are facing much stricter constraints in terms of the time, in terms of the exposure to the social activities. So you must think of their safety, security and their limitations when we design this kind of learning activity.

A. Why do you think literacy learning works better on mobile?

Miao: … Mobile technology is the kind of effective vector to the purpose of literacy education programs both in terms of the access to … the literacy learning content and also to sustain the literacy learning because very often … the literate people will relapse back to illiteracy.

… We already have this kind of evidence showing that mobile technology can support the literacy education, particularly for women and girls. And the first point of the results will be about using the mobile technology to empower these peoples who are the illiterate and often are the people who are under poverty or have been underserved because we cannot just provide them with basic literacy knowledge and skills. We should move beyond to help them to develop more relevant life skills and … empower their confidence and their social stature.

Q. Have your efforts been successful?

Miao: … We have conducted some evaluations and the evaluations demonstrate some of the successes. And also, of course, we … encountered some difficulties, challenges. And also we find some things are not, you know, successful as we expected.

What do you think is needed to further promote mobile literacy?

Miao… The whole global community should have more robust research on whether the mobile technology or mobile solution is really a cost-effective kind of solution to the literacy education because … there is very scarce evidence talking about the cost comparison of the mobile-based solution and the traditional solution. So this kind of research I think is quite essential for the way ahead.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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