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The Challenges of Illiteracy and ICT Training in Bhutan

By Guest Writer on June 21, 2013

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Bhutan’s timeline is unique: formal education was introduced there in 1960, Internet and TV were introduced in 1999, and democracy was introduced in 2008. Because of this timeline, Bhutan faces unique ICT integration challenges in rural areas of the country.

Beyond Access has been working with READ Bhutan and the Bhutanese ICT group Athang to assess ways to improve the quality and reach of ICT resources available to populations in regions where READ centers are located. READ Bhutan operates five community library resource centers across the country. At each center, a wide range of information resources can be found, such as children’s books written in Dzongkha (the local language), public debates on women’s empowerment, posters of agricultural information, photographs of local festivals, and computers with free internet access. The centers are often paired with a needed community service, such as tractor leasing or a child day-care center, which serves as an innovative sustainability model.

In March 2013, Beyond Access visited Bhutan, where the team visited READ centers, met with international and local organizations, and conducted informal focus group discussions with Bhutanese school children, farmers, and women’s groups designed to assess the most pressing information needs facing communities near READ centers. One of the team’s key findings was the challenge that illiteracy created in designing ICT services for rural communities in Bhutan.

As formal education is relatively new to Bhutan, the adult illiteracy rate is near 47.19%, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. In rural areas this rate climbs further and the majority of adults are illiterate. Furthermore, the population of illiterate adults is a sector with some of the most urgent information needs. For example, illiterate farmers are dependent on market prices for their crops on the days they travel to an auction. How can ICT systems and services, largely developed for a western audience with high literacy rates, be made useful for these people?

As for youth, there are many more opportunities for ICT in information science classes as well as through other youth-related projects. However, the price of internet remains high and schools often can’t afford to provide internet access, except when internet skills are taught as part of the lesson. There is a significant role for READ centers in providing youth access to internet and information as well as equipping them with practical computer skills. As the instructional language in Bhutan’s schools is English, this provides a unique opportunity for ICT programming, as there is already so much content available on the internet for English speakers.

Bhutan has two population sectors with very different information realities, and training that works for youth in a rural community will be lost on adults. Since the two populations are so different, ICT integration methods and teaching must be tackled differently for both groups. The Beyond Access team also focused on innovation arising from a family of illiterate parents with literate children. When a parent receives a text message, they typically have their child read it to them. So while illiteracy is a challenge, a text message announcement of a READ Center program on crop rotation can still reach its target audience.

Trainings can be designed around a parent-child partnership. A mother brings her literate daughter with her to the training, and they both work together to learn how to make a Skype call to the son working in India. One service in strong demand in rural communities is the recording of oral histories. Communities are excited at the possibility that an elder may tell a tale at a READ Center story night while a team of youth record and later distribute CDs of the history. Innovative ICT programing such as these examples can bridge the illiteracy divide in rural communities and bring meaningful services to a sector of the population with pressing information needs. Beyond Access is excited to work with READ Bhutan on some of those innovations.

This was posted as Illiteracy and ICT training: Transforming Challenges into Innovative Programming and is republished here with permission

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