Basic Literacy Skills are a requirement in bridging the digital divide

Johannesburg, South Africa

In order to bridge the digital divide in Africa, one area that needs attention is imparting of basic literacy skills amongst the majority of the adult population, many of whom cannot read or write.
In recent years major strides have been made to ensure that children of school going age attend school. Countries such as Kenya have implemented free primary school education. Even though standards may not be upto date, at least most of the children who graduate from Primary schools can read and write and perform a certain level solving arithmetic problems with ease.

As an IT professional, my work largely entails training people in IT skills. In the past, people who attended IT training were the working class and secondary school graduates waiting to join Univerisity or specialized colleges. Training such people has never been a problem since there is good level of understanding. Increasingly, it is becoming common for people with very limited literacy skills to attend IT training, which is encouraging since it shows a keeness to adopt new technology.

The challenge comes when communication is a barrier, i.e. trainer-delegate cannot communicate say in English. How does one then transfer the IT skills to the delegate in question? One key benefit of ICTs is the ability to use the Internet to obtain information and to communicate via email. Most Internet websites are in the English language, so again the person with limited literacy skills faces another barrier.

As the price of PCs and peripherals gets lower, many firms can now afford a PC per employee, including the tea-lady, the messenger and other support staff. Many corporate organisations are investing in IT training for their employees, including the tea-lady. Again, this is a major step in the right direction towards closing the digital divide.

The question though is, to what extent are people with limited literacy skills benefitting from acquiring these IT skills? Wouldn’t it add more value if such groups are first given basic adult literacy skills and thereafter, IT skills. The other issue I now recognize as important is localization, whereby, software is written in local African languages, understandable by local users. In the FOSS community, this is now happening, but in a limited way.

Still on the issue of African languages, most African countries adopted the foreign languages of the ‘colonial masters’ to the detriment of African languages. It is not uncommon to find native Africans who speak fluent English but not a single word of their native language. This means that even if localization of software were to happen, there would be few reliable translators, users and trainers!

Africa faces many problems ranging from disease, poverty, HIV/AIDS etc. The Internet provides a wealth of information which if accessed and utilised could change the destiny of many Africans. Unless the issue of adult literacy skills is addressed, there will be a generational digital divide within Africa, where by those with education are miles ahead of those with limited or no education.

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