Frontier College logoLiteracy is obviously an essential skill in today’s world and CNW, as a company in the news and information business, has a clear interest in promoting literacy. For that very reason Frontier College has been one of CNW’s community partners for many years now. Ever year, we send the CNW Newsmakers team to participate in Frontier College’s Scrabble Night in Canada event – an event we’re proud to say has raised more than $1 million for literacy.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in Frontier College’s Literacy and Technology Forum. I joined Jim Cummins, Canada Research Chair, Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; Gavin Thompson, Director, Corporate Citizenship, Microsoft Canada; Sherry Campbell, President, Frontier College, and our wonderful host CBC’s Mark Kelley for an engaging discussion on the effect technology is having on literacy.

It was an important discussion to have for many reasons, as literacy affects us all. Did you know that:

  • 4 in 10 adults struggle with low literacy. This represents 9 million Canadians between 16 and 65. [i]
  • Of those who do contact a literacy organization, less than half end up enrolling and nearly a third drop out. [ii]
  • Approximately 72% of people who are challenged with low literacy are employed [iii] and these individuals are most at risk of losing their jobs due to technological, process and organizational change.

For business leaders literacy rates should be a cause for concern. Research has shown that low literacy levels cost businesses $2.5 billion annually in lost productivity. The benefits of improved literacy skills include reduced errors, improved quality of work and increased work effort. Ultimately, enhanced literacy skills lead to a more engaged workforce, one that’s more prepared to assume responsibility.

During the panel discussion we debated whether our dependence on technology and media is leaving behind people at low literacy levels, how we can use technology and social media as tools for literacy, and how technology is shaping the way we communicate. There were quite a few interesting points, including:

  • The opportunities that Same Language Subtitles (SLS) presents.

    As this article from the New York Times explains, by simply introducing karaoke-style subtitles to Bollywood musicals and music videos, villages in India have more than doubled their literacy rates. SLS is a quick and inexpensive way to improve reading and comprehensive skills.
  • The ability to create content online and interact through social media can drive enthusiasm for reading and writing.

    A study by the National Literacy Trust in the UK last year showed a correlation between children’s use of social media and their literacy. The more forms of communication children use, the stronger their core literacy skills are. Online technology can drive enthusiasm for writing as people are able to practice these skills in a setting they are comfortable with.
  • Frequently, we believe that social media and technology has had a negative affect on our writing and grammar – from abbreviated words to Twitter and texting-speak – but that may not necessarily be the case.

    According to a professor at Stanford University, choosing the wrong word is the most common error today in student writing, but while the type of error has changed, the ratio of errors to words has held steady for more than 100 years.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that as technology advances and makes inroads into our daily lives, we need to re-think what literacy means and take advantage of the many new ways to learn.

TVO’s Agenda had a great debate on this topic last October and I recommend watching this segment to hear more about the impact of digital on literacy:

So what do you think? How do you think technology affects literacy?

[i] Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey – Stats Can – 2005 –
[ii] Patterns of Participation in Canadian Literacy and Upgrading Programs – ABC Canada in conjunction with Literacy BC
[iii] International Adult Literacy Skills Survey – 2005


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