“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratisation, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right… Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realise his or her full potential.” – Kofi Annan: In Message on Occasion of International Literacy Day, 8 September 1997.
Over 18 years have passed since Kofi Annan gave this address as UN Secretary General, and since this time our understanding of literacy has expanded. For a citizen of the world today, there are now numerous literacies necessary for self-actualisation and further development. Educational technologist Kathy Schrock has identified thirteen literacies necessary for the digital age: traditional, information, visual, critical, media, tool, health, historical, global, economic, civic, data and digital literacies. These literacies encompass the full range of communication skills required in a digital word.
What is digital literacy?
Digital Literacy is, “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers. The concept of literacy goes beyond simply being able to read; it has always meant the ability to read with meaning. It is the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyse and synthesize digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media,” (Casey & Bruce, 2010).
Digital literacy has come to the fore in the last decade with the advent of platforms and apps that have changed the way our world works. Smartphones rule the personal device market and many of us cannot imagine life without them. Nothing in our lives is significant until we have posted it on Facebook or Instagram; breaking news is now only a tweet away and Uber, the private car company that “doesn’t own any vehicles” is disrupting the transportation market worldwide.
Digital literacy in Africa
There are numerous examples of how digital innovations are disrupting life on the African continent, from mobile money tools like M-Pesa, to mPedigree the e-verification app that allows people to verify the authenticity of drugs and other products and The African Storybook Project, the open-access digital library with stories in multiple African languages.
All of these innovations arose because there was a need that could not be met by traditional or conventional means and digital tools opened up a way to circumvent a problem. However, these innovations now require access to digital resources such as an internet-enabled device like a mobile phone, access to the internet and electricity, as well as the ability to use and interact with the digital space in a meaningful way. It requires the user to be digitally literate.
This has given rise to initiatives like Africa Code Week that are concerned with empowering youth with digital skills and have identified coding as the “literacy of the digital age… a whole new language for children to speak fluently and express themselves in the 21st century.” The number of digitally literate Africans is set to increase exponentially, but there are limitations.
Data costs remain high
Access to internet remains one of the greatest obstacles for Africans who want to live and work in the digital space. Most Africans access the internet over a mobile device and Research ICT Africa’s statistics show that mobile data prices remain high. Initiatives by companies such as Facebook and Google and the Kenyan BRCK, a self-powered, mobile WiFi device and battery extender, want to provide cheap or free internet access to millions of Africans. If Africans are able to access the internet at a minimal cost they are sure to flourish as the benefits of digital literacy take root in a modern Africa.
Author: Anesu Chigariro