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Digital illiteracy – a real handicap

By Jean-Claude Elias - Jun 28,2018 - Last updated at Jun 28,2018

A parallel has recently been drawn between pure illiteracy and the inability of some people to deal with the connected, digital world. The French have even come up with a neologism for this modern-age “handicap”; they call it “illectronisme”, a portmanteau word built on “electronic” and “illiteracy”. 

Whereas we all realise that there is still a part — albeit a small one — of the population that has difficulty using the available digital tools, it is only recently that the international community has started to acknowledge the phenomenon as an actual handicap, as a problem that is getting as severe as straightforward illiteracy, with similar, grave consequences.

These consequences are well known and go from downright discrimination to impossibility to find work, exclusion from society, poverty, crime, etc. In its 2015 report on the subject UNESCO has found that the world’s illiteracy average rate stood at 13.7 per cent, with extreme highs of 73 per cent in South Sudan and, at the other end, extreme lows of 0.2 per cent in Ukraine, Poland and Estonia, for example. Jordan’s rate stood at 2.1 per cent.

There may not yet be any systematic studies to translate into figures the rate of “digital illiteracy” (or DI — we will use this term, pending an English equivalent to the French illectronisme) but we already have a feeling of how bad it may be. Again, the social consequences of DI and plain illiteracy are similar.

Whatever the proportion among the population, whatever the gender, age or social gaps, those affected with DI do not understand what a cloud backup means or where it is stored, have difficulty transferring contents from their old smartphone to the new one (assuming they do use one), are unable to fill out online forms to process governments formalities, suffer with online banking, make mistakes processing online payments, try to attach gigantic files to their e-mail messages, lose data for lack of backup, use “123456” as password, or are simply unable at all to use or deal with any of these tools. In some instances, misuse may prove to have worse consequences than no use at all.

And yet, living today without the minimum required digital literacy is virtually impossible. Lebanese scholar Joseph Ajami goes as far as to say, rather bluntly, that: “these days, if you’re not online, you don’t exist”.

Henry Jenkins (MIT, Massachusetts) furthermore explains: “While digital literacy initially focused on digital skills and stand-alone computers, its focus has shifted to network devices including the Internet and use of social media. Digital literacy does not replace traditional forms of literacy. Instead, it builds upon the foundation of traditional forms of literacy.”

The cure for DI may be more challenging than the cure for simple illiteracy. Before designing and implementing any methods, measurements and formal evaluation should be taken and done, and no organisation or country seems to have done it at this point in time.

Moreover, systematically addressing the DI problem could prove to be expensive, given that the minimum tools requirements (equipment, software licences, subscriptions, devices, networks, etc,) cost more than those used in addressing illiteracy where often a book is enough to do the job.

The challenge is furthermore exacerbated by the speed of change in the connected, digital world, a speed that no school, college, welfare or institution seems to be able to cope with.

On the bright side is the fact that addressing DI could indirectly contribute to address plain illiteracy at the same time. It is actually easy to see that the two issues are intertwined.

As with any disease, the solution will only come after acknowledging it and weighing its implications. The cure will follow almost automatically.

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