Literacy in an Electronic Age: A Perspective

Literacy in an Electronic Age: A Perspective

While experts and practitioners of Literacy do not agree on how literacy is to be defined and understood, there is a general agreement that the transition from oral to literate cultures is associated with economic growth and ‘progress’ (Goody, 1977; Olson, 1977). Somehow, this belief has permeated the development consciousness deeply. But ‘literacy’ itself is transient, dynamic and lacking a fixed definition both across time and space. It is not clear as to what level of attainment would qualify an individual as ‘literate’. The differences in our understanding cannot simply be wished away. For example, while the Census in India considers a person literate if they can read and write in any language, UNESCO is guided by its motto of ‘Literacy as Freedom’ (EFA Global Monitoring Report, 2006). In the ‘50s, UNESCO’s direction was to identify one with four years of schooling, or up to 8th Grade among 14+ children as literate. The National Literacy Mission had followed this guideline as it started. But we know that the number of school years do not correspond to one’s ability to read and write (ASER, 2016). Therefore, we consider the pluralities of literacy in the context of wellbeing and growth of people here.

Linear, exponential and especially the discontinuous growth paradigm impacts the human condition at a revolutionary scale. Computing, the digital community, and artificial intelligence have penetrated all dimensions of the human condition – yet the last significant technological advancement to have been fully harnessed for global literacy was the ‘Printing Press’ that transformed the nature of knowledge production and generation from the Acoustic to the Literacy era, finally leading to the Print era. In some way, the printing press set the precedence for our understanding of basic literacy as reading and writing (of mainly printed texts). Here the acoustic skills and the writing skills were both important for the Print era to succeed. With the move to the Electronic era, a time came when the information technology became more decentralized, so that 70% of internet load was user-generated. Moreover, most of it is now driven by audio-visual content, which is why a relook at ‘literacy’ is essential given the current set of challenges faced by the individuals. One could recall the creation of the term ‘Computer Literate’ some time ago, although in today’s context, this means the addition of various tools and technologies that are associated with our wellbeing and good living, all of which come to us through cell-phones. There is an acute need to incorporate the concept of ‘Hybridity’ (Singh et al., 2017) into our understanding of literacy.

Literacy as we know has been guided by knowledge dissemination technology (printing), inviting individuals to the challenge of knowledge extraction from what is printed. The prioritization of instructional prose during the industrial age happened, thus enabling the successful adoption of modern schooling that Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking model” (Freire, 1993), because of its top down and curriculum driven structure. Now that we have moved further from there and into an electronic age and digital learning era, given the present age of knowledge driven economics and social learning, humans need to fully harness the creativity of the human mind to complement and stay ahead of artificial intelligence. A comparison between these two kinds of intelligence could be rewarding (Swan, 2007):

Just as the “Reading age” pushed literacy from the ancient Indian conceptualization (Singh, 2017) of “shruti” (knowledge through hearing) and “smriti” (knowledge through storage and cultivation of memory) to “kriti” (performing knowledge actions), integration of technology and human evolution will necessitate a multi-dimensional and pluralistic reinterpretation of literacy of various kinds:

  • Survival Literacy
  • Basic Literacy
  • Critical Literacy
  • Social Literacy
  • Functional Literacy
  • Utilitarian Literacy
  • Cultural Literacy
  • Higher Order Literacy
  • Digital Literacy

The actualization of pluralistic literacy is limited by our schooling system. It is therefore our schooling system that needs to focus on human learning, and the most efficient modes of learning in the present age – audio, visual, symbolic, and social modes, where the teaching- learning activity is personalized and customized through technology, where learners happen to pick up reading and writing, simply because it is enjoyable, and not because of urge to get out of any social stigma.

ASER, or Annual Status of Education Report, 2016. New Delhi: Pratham. Retrieved from

Freire, P. (1993), Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Books.

Goody, J. (1977), Domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Olson, D. R. (1977), Oral and Written Language and the Cognitive Processes of Children. Journal of Communication, 27: 10–26.

Singh R., Sharma N., Verma K. (2017) Chapter 6 Learning and Evolving in Hybrid Learning: A PAR Perspective. In: Kidwai H., Iyengar R., Witenstein M., Byker E., Setty R. (eds) Participatory Action Research and Educational Development. South Asian Education Policy, Research, and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan.

Singh, U.N. (2017), Literacy, Oralcy and Multilinguality- the Linguistic Landscape of India. Presentation to Room to Read, Habitat Centre, 28th July 2017.

Swan, M. (2007). The Future of Technology. MS Futures Group.

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Dr. Rajarshi Singh
Dr. Rajarshi Singh is interested in social and cultural development with respect to educational practice and policy. His focus is on discovering data-driven insights for outcome oriented improvement of program designs and monitoring and evaluation.