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Time to reimagine adult literacy in a post-COVID-19 world

By Jackie Carroll, MD of Media Works

At a time in which COVID-19 has changed our lives forever, International Literacy month is taking place with renewed meaning and focus.

Since 1967, International Literacy Day (celebrated every 8 September) has highlighted the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights.

The occasion, which is spearheaded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), recognises progress made towards global literacy while also highlighting the deep challenges that persist.

This year’s theme is focused on literacy teaching and learning amid the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, with particular attention paid to the role of educators and changing pedagogies.

In 2020, the world continues to face significant literacy challenges, with at least 773 million adults lacking basic literacy skills, says Unesco. The pandemic has further exacerbated this problem by forcing the majority of adult literacy programmes to be suspended this year, with just a few courses continuing virtually through online platforms, TV and radio or in open-air spaces.

In South Africa, the challenges are just as acute. While our country’s official literacy rate is over 95% (according to the World Bank), studies have shown that over 70% of our country’s Grade 4 learners cannot read with meaning. Added to this is the fact that the legacy of apartheid has resulted in many adults not being functionally literate either.

As an adult education provider with over 25 years’ experience, Media Works has helped thousands of adults gain literacy skills over the years. That said, this has still been our most challenging year yet.

Literacy through lockdown

Traditionally, successful adult education and training (AET) programmes have taken a blended approach to learning – bringing together face-to-face facilitation with computer-based lessons, where learners can access learning material via software installed at workplace computers.

When lockdown hit in South Africa, many AET programmes across the country were put on hold as workplace training centres and shared computer training rooms were closed to protect learners and staff from COVID-19.

Unfortunately, many companies took the decision to suspend their adult learning programmes indefinitely. But others have looked for alternative ways to deliver training solutions in order to keep their staff members learning despite the circumstances.

Media Works Cape (Western Cape and Eastern Cape) currently has an average of 1 000 active learners who are studying communications and mathematical literacy. Our experience quickly taught us that video conferencing lessons weren’t particularly effective during the pandemic, as learners at home typically don’t have access to the necessary data, technical resources or a suitable device (such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop) in order to access the material.

As a result, in order to keep as many learners up to date with their tuition as possible, Media Works has pivoted to using WhatsApp and online conferencing platforms. It has been interesting to note that WhatsApp has provided one of the most effective tools for facilitating virtual AET learning, as it allows the sharing of lesson videos, and enables learners to ask questions and voice their concerns.

Workbook lessons are also being offered remotely at learners’ homes, and once lessons have been completed, each learner takes photos of their work, and sends them to their facilitator via WhatsApp for marking. Once all learners have submitted their work, the facilitators post the answers on WhatsApp for self-marking and revision purposes.

Literacy can’t wait

Around the word, adult literacy programmes were absent in initial pandemic response plans. Most were suspended with just a few courses continuing virtually as best they could. Fortunately, many of these programmes are now rallying.

In order to ensure that adult learners around the world – and particularly in South Africa – aren’t left behind, it’s imperative that efforts to advance the literacy agenda continue to be an abiding priority.

We need to learn from this experience and develop more innovative, virtual solutions for AET, while also being conscious of the fact that face-to-face interaction and engagement remain critical. Ongoing technical and digital literacy support and access to cheaper data also need to be prioritised.

What COVID-19 has taught the AET community is that virtual adult literacy training is possible. And while lockdown is starting to ease and in-person training is beginning to resume in line with COVID-19 protocols, we may yet need to rely on, and continue to improve, our online resources. It’s reassuring to know that we now have the tools and expertise to make sure that adult education will be able to continue effectively no matter what the future holds.

* Jackie Carroll is the MD and co-founder of Media Works, a provider of adult education and training. Media Works forms part of the Optimi Group.