Is Our Definition Of The Right To Education Outdated?

By Jackie Carroll

Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult education. This implies that everyone has the right to literacy and numeracy, the essential skills necessary to participate in society, and to find and retain work.

But the world has evolved. Literacy and numeracy are no longer enough. Today, no education is complete if it doesn’t also include digital literacy as well. This Human Rights Day, we need to rethink what the right to education really involves.

It is difficult to find a definitive figure on just how many South Africans are digitally illiterate, which is perhaps indicative of the problem. Research into digital literacy isn’t sufficiently prioritised for this number to be available. A 2019 study on the digital landscape in South Africa says that a national approach to assessing digital literacy hasn’t yet been developed, which limits understanding of its scale.

But with 10% of South Africa’s adult population illiterate and 36% of households living without any access to the internet, according to Stats SA, it’s likely that digital literacy in the country is poor.

As South Africa seeks to respond to the ongoing demands of the pandemic, we must ask ourselves: is our definition of the right to education outdated? Do we need to stipulate digital literacy specifically if we are to equip our people with the skills they need to survive, let alone thrive?

Why digital literacy matters

The United Nations has emphasised the critical role of digital technologies in helping to make the world fairer, more peaceful and more just. “Digital advances,” it has said, “can support and accelerate achievement of each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals – from ending extreme poverty to reducing maternal and infant mortality, promoting sustainable farming and decent work, and achieving universal literacy.”

Digital literacy is no longer a nice-to-have, nor is it reserved for the educated or elite. It never should have been in the first place. But now, more than ever, it is a universal necessity. Whether you’re trying to complete your matric, study further, or apply for a job, every process has an online portal, most of which are now mandatory. The days of dropping off your CV at the doors of a potential employer are no more. Of course, in many instances, these doors have now closed in favour of remote working.

Knowing how to find, evaluate and communicate information by typing, and being able to use other media on digital platforms, is the foundation for any kind of further development. For all of us.

Other limitations

Literacy is just one piece of the improving-digital-education-in-South-Africa puzzle. The other pieces, of course, are infrastructure and the cost of data.

Currently, only 8% of South African households have access to the internet at home. This figure, says Stats SA, is highest among homes in the Western Cape and Gauteng. In provinces like Limpopo and the North West, it is as low as 1.5% and 1% respectively.

In April 2021, Cable.co.uk released its latest worldwide mobile data pricing report. The research placed South Africa at 136th out of 230 countries for data costs. South Africans pay R38.93 for just 1GB. This combined impact, of lack of infrastructure and high data costs, have been enormous, especially during Covid, and have helped to further hinder an already impoverished population.

Incremental steps

The responsibility for changing the status quo is a shared one. It rests with government, but also with the private sector, academic institutions, and a range of relevant service providers.

This month, Media Works, South Africa’s leading adult education and training provider, turns 26. We’ve been working in the adult education space since 1996, just four years after the internet became available for commercial and domestic use in the country. The technological gains we’ve seen in this more than quarter century, it goes without saying, have been immense.

We’ve gone from lugging towers, monitors and courses on floppy disks to our clients, to making all our courses available online. Perhaps even more importantly, we’ve integrated a computer literacy component into every programme we offer. In this way, we are trying to play our part, trying to make sure that our adult learners have all the skills they need to participate in an increasingly digital world.

This holistic approach, we feel, should be central to South Africa’s understanding of the right to education.

Jackie Carroll is the MD of Optimi Workplace and co-founder of Media Works, South Africa’s leading provider of adult education and training for 26 years.

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