International Literacy Day 2017
Thought-leader article by Rob Rees, Chief Operating Officer of Media Works

If you cannot read, you will struggle to learn. Literacy is the basis of all future learning; it is the cornerstone of education and, in our country, this cornerstone has been crumbling for decades.

As the world commemorates the 51st anniversary of International Literacy Day on the 8th of September 2017, we are forced to examine the progress made to increase global literacy rates and to acknowledge and find solutions for the challenges that still prevail.

Within the South African context, this year’s International Literacy Day theme, “Literacy in a digital world”, has particular relevance. Looking at the past quickly brings us up against a legacy of educational failings still felt in the present, and a potential of future opportunities that need to be addressed.

When looking to answers and ways to improve literacy in our country, it’s imperative that we include technology when seeking out solutions.

“The world has changed since 1966, but our determination to provide every woman and man with the skills, capacities and opportunities to become everything they wish, in dignity and respect, remains as firm as ever,” says UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. “Literacy is a foundation to build a more sustainable future for all.”

Students today find themselves in a world driven by technology. This means they have to learn basic communication and mathematical skills, as well as how to use, and deploy, ever-changing technology. In South Africa, we seem to have arrived at a point where we have two levels of illiteracy; verbal/written illiteracy, as well as computer-based illiteracy.

As an extension of this, aiming for a more literate future requires sustainable adult education and training (AET) to right past wrongs. This training needs to utilise technology effectively in order to provide scalable, quality education for more South Africans, and to allow learners the chance to get up to speed with technology.

Basic education is still failing our youth

The basic education system in South Africa is still struggling to produce functionally literate school leavers . As the leading provider of AET in South Africa for over 21 years, Media Works has witnessed this failure first-hand. While there have been changes within the education landscape since the company began, not enough has been done to ensure that matriculants are equipped with the reading, writing and mathematical literacy skills necessary to communicate and cope in the workplace and, subsequently, to lead independent and prosperous lives.

Learners in South Africa continue to leave school functionally illiterate, without the skills necessary to pursue either tertiary education or an artisan career, let alone a professional one. The majority of those who have completed Grade 12 still require AET at levels that are below Grade 9.

This systemic failure has led to a rise in the group known as NEETS, those “not in education, employment or training”. These individuals comprise a highly dissatisfied and volatile collective, mostly between the ages of 18 and 24, who pose a serious threat to social stability. In South Africa, particularly in the Eastern Cape and the North West province, NEETS make up a significant portion of the adult population.

Not only are our students battling to keep up with the demands of increased workloads and homework at school, our teachers are also having a hard time adjusting to the use and sporadic deployment of technology learning solutions in the classroom.

We need to be restructuring and transforming the conventional classroom to accommodate new technological advancements. Teacher training must include the use of computers and mobile devices, as this will make them more effective, and provide a method of learning that the youth of today will identify with, and that will challenge them in different ways – being able to learn more efficiently and effectively in a world of technology.

“Technology will never replace great teachers. But, technology in the hands of great teachers is transformational,” said Canadian educator and innovator, George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset.

Sustainable, quality adult education bridges the gap

AET is the only way to bridge the gap between what should have been achieved at school and what needs to be learned to function and thrive as an employee. In order for the individual to gain independence and to contribute to the South African economy, this additional support is essential.

Over the years, Media Works has seen an increase in the number of learners who, after completing its introductory communications programmes, continue to enrol in its more advanced communications programmes. This process is not a quick-fix solution, but rather a long-term approach that guides learners through education levels in ways that are accessible and achievable. When properly performed, AET offers an effective way to teach adults, allowing them to progress through literacy levels successfully.

Between 2013 and 2017, Media Works recorded an average communications pass rate among its learners of 78% across all levels.

Businesses are leading the way

In South Africa, the business sector has taken on this responsibility, upskilling and educating its workforces using the Media Works AET, FLC (Foundational Learning Competence) and ASC (Amended Senior Certificate / Adult Matric) computer assisted and online training programmes

Rather than engaging learners in short-term programmes that don’t adequately teach and assess them, businesses have been investing in a culture of long-term / lifelong training that allows learners to progress through learning levels over a number of years. This is a far more sustainable approach, and indicates a move away from once-off 12-month programmes that continue to leave learners poorly equipped for the working world.

A literate, educated, tech-savvy workforce is a motivated, competent workforce, which results in higher productivity and leads, in turn, to increased profitability. This is reason enough for employers to enrol staff in AET and career-development training, but the benefits to society go far deeper.

It is through effective, sustainable adult education that our country will see the social transformation and decrease in poverty and unemployment that is so desperately needed. Literacy empowers individuals and strengthens communities; so empowered, they are indeed capable of writing the future.

Rob Rees is the Chief Operating Officer of Media Works.