On September 8, International Literacy Day offered an opportunity to celebrate progress in global literacy. Or not. It was sobering to discover that over 900 million people in the world are illiterate and over 120 million school-aged children have no place to go to school.
Compounding the problem is the fact that, with increased use of computers in the workplace, the goalposts of basic literacy requirements are forever moving and few workers nowadays can get away with limited reading and writing abilities.
William T Esrey, chairman of Sprint International (an American company which specialises in distance learning applications) was addressing a video-conference on International Literacy Day. He announced an ambitious initiative, designed to reduce illiteracy across the world, which is being set up by Sprint, the International Reading Association, and UNESCO.
By means of the very technology which will help to fulfil this aim, he explained to watchers in video-conferencing suites in the United States, Paris, London and Germany, that Project READ (Reading Education and Development), a new international commission, will investigate how we can use the world's "nearly ubiquitous telecommunications network to extend educational resources to students at remote corners of the globe", train teachers and link administrators continents apart.
Three panels in Washington and Paris of education experts from the US, Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Africa agreed that Project READ should start with the home, targeting women in particular. In the words of Habib Mborak, former chief of the literacy and adult education section at UNESCO, "If you educate a man you educate one person. If you educate a woman, you educate a family".
They also concurred that experiential and participatory methods should be used, as it is easier to motivate people if their studies are relevant to their social lives and work. And, since pupils learn best in their mother tongue, each country will need to develop its own literacy programme and avoid importing it from elsewhere.
It is easy to see how telecommunications technology will facilitate the sharing of information between continents. But what the video-conference failed to make clear was how this sophisticated and expensive technology will be made available to, say, students in rural areas in deepest India.
Niki Davis, senior lecturer at Exeter University, who has been working on video communications in education projects for three years, believes the success of such a venture "will depend on location and money". Countries with good telephone lines and in receipt of OECD grants or other funding will have the advantage, but in many developing countries "the lines of communication are unpredictable and access will be very uneven".
Looking on the bright side, technology is making such rapid strides that by the 21st century these problems may well have been overcome and the goal of improved literacy throughout the world could be several steps closer to realisation.
Further information: Rob Schweidler, Sprint International, 0256 24868 or Elaine Mercer, Miller Communications, 071-240 4566