Can e-Literacy and Illiteracy Co-exist?

In the midst of a slew of big-bang reforms announced by a recharged government in the last few days, a small but crucial cabinet decision has escaped everyone’s attention. The cabinet has approved the National Policy on Information Technology 2012.

And those who have covered it have highlighted either the big numbers—targets of three fold increase in IT industry size from $100 billion to $300 billion by 2020, creation of a 10-million additional ICT manpower pool—or the more ideological stances such as commitment to accessibility and open standards and open technologies.

One point that has gone largely unnoticed is the the goal of making at least one e-literate individual in every household. On the face  of it, it is very well-intentioned. Unlike IT industry size and open standards, this is something, when achieved, would benefit the common people directly.  As more and more government services become available electronically, a better comfort level in accessing those services directly without the help of any middleman will not just be more convenient for common people, it will give them a greater sense of power.

But there are many questions that need to be answered. Unlike a lot of other points, the policy document does not go into any more details on this.

So, what is e-literacy? How do you define it? How do you measure it? It is a laudable idea but is it practical to have it at a goal? And especially in a country with such a high illiteracy rate? What are the broad possible paths to proceed towards such a goal, even if we do not have exact answers to all the questions, right in the beginning?

(To set the expectations right, I am not really trying to answer these questions, but am raising them to set a broad agenda for discussion)

For one thing, it is good that the policy has used the phrase e-literacy and not the dated term computer literacy. We have gone past the era of computer. “e” is no more synonymous with computers.

But that very fact also means that we have to start with basic definition. The definition of e-literacy is still vague. In fact, the more used term in the international forums is the phrase “digital literacy”, which I believe, by and large, represents the same idea, as opposed to something like “computer literacy” or “media literacy” or “internet literacy” which are somewhat restricting.

The simplest definition of digital literacy is, I believe, the Wikipedia definition—the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used.

The question is how to create measurables, action plans, and monitor the progress. Going by the international practices, the approach has mostly been through embedding it with traditional education or through integrated small programs. Both could be effective but the first approach is restrictive, as it excludes a large part of the population. But not impractical considering the goal is to have one individual e-literate per family. Integrated small programs are not scalable in a country like India and the progress is difficult to measure.

The challenge before India is that every one out of four people are illiterate. Going by the latest Census (2011) figures, the average household size in India is between 4 to 5. This, in pure arithmetic terms, means we have to make one-fourth of the population e-literate. However, since the current level of comfort with digital technologies and Internet is fairly high in a section of people in urban areas, the task of making at least one person e-literate is far more challenging than just achieving a number.

I believe  RBI’s National Strategy for Financial Education can be a good reference to start with as it addresses the question holistically; some of the challenges are similar; and the plan takes into account the Indian realities. In fact, it is not a bad idea to find the synergy between the two plans. Because, at the core of it lies a desire to achieve inclusion.

While today, no social inclusion is possible without financial inclusion, tomorrow, the same can be said about digital inclusion. Without digital literacy, there cannot be digital inclusion.

If we are starting now, we must take a holistic approach that takes into account the socio-economic factors while formulating any plan of action for e-literacy.

I am happy that the government has considered this to be important enough to include it as an objective in the National Policy on IT.

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Filed under Digital Economy, Inclusive India, Indian Economy, Technology & Society

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