Christian Fiebig

Illiteracy in German is a taboo subject, although the number of functional illiterates is estimated at four million. Only 20,000 students a year attend literacy courses at the Volkshochschulen. An e-learning portal is currently being jointly developed through APOLL (Alfa-Portal Literacy Learning) by the German Adult Education Association and the Federal Association for Literacy, in order to provide functional illiterates with a world of learning via the Internet, to strengthen literacy in Germany and to make media skills a part of basic education. Christian Fiebig is Head of the Apoll Project.

E-Literacy: Learning to Write via the Internet

A New Impetus for Literacy in Germany

At first sight the idea seems as odd as it is exciting. The Internet makes it possible to adapt to the learner’s times and pace of learning, to devise individual curricula and to let learners exchange views with each other. If functional illiterates can successfully be taught literacy using the Internet to supplement courses, the goal of the World Literacy Decade – a reduction of 50 per cent in the rate of illiteracy – will come a step closer.

On the other hand, how can illiterate people can gain access to a literate medium in order to take advantage of the learning available? We are convinced that this can be achieved.

Our conviction is based on two considerations. In the first place, the availability of the Internet is growing rapidly. Radio took 30 years, and television 14 years, to reach a level of nationwide use comparable to that currently enjoyed by the Internet. The Internet is thus on the way to becoming a mass medium. It is only logical for literacy work to make use of this technology in future.

At the same time, everyone is now familiar with computers at the workplace in modern industrialized societies. It is no longer adequate to be able to read, write and add up, and to have the basics of a foreign language – it is also essential to know how to use a VDU and a keyboard, displays and communications software in order to remain in touch both at work and in private life. Media skills must therefore become an integral part of basic education.

In Germany, 55 per cent of households are now online. To begin with, it was largely well-educated high earners who used the Internet. People of all backgrounds are now connected up: school pupils, senior citizens, men and women of all ages are regular users.

Technical Equipment for Functional Illiterates

The big question when the project began was nonetheless where the target group of “functional illiterates” would acquire the necessary media equipment, and how they would react to it. Together with the Volkshochschulen (adult education centres), the APOLL project surveyed over 1000 participants in literacy courses at 29 Volkshochschulen in 13 federal Länder between March and May 2003. The LuTA Study (on the Circumstances and Technical Equipment of Functional Illiterates) reveals the trends in this area for the first time. The result is encouraging: 43 per cent of the participants questioned stated that they were willing or very willing to learn at a PC, and 22 per cent already had private Internet access.

Graphic: Willignes to learn from a computer


Graphic: School leaving certificate


Graphic: Vocational training


Graphic: Relationship


Other results of the survey show what educational careers and social consequences are associated with illiteracy: 61 per cent of those questioned had no formal school-leaving qualifications, and 71 had completed no vocational training. As a result, 41 per cent of the functional illiterates were unemployed and probably stood little chance of finding jobs in the future, given the increasing use of technology at the workplace. Another peculiarity of the target group, which may be typical of industrialized countries, is that 51 per cent were livingf alone, while the proportion of single people in the whole population is only 15-18 per cent. This figure suggests that functional illiteracy is looked down on socially in industrialized societies, making it difficult or even impossible to form relationships. This is the start of a spiral of stigmatization and isolation, which literacy must play a major part in overcoming. Given the fear of being stigmatized, learning via the Internet seems a good alternative. Access is anonymous, no one has to own up immediately, and people can learn at their own pace.

The Community as a Factor in Success

E-literacy can only use technology as a tool, however. The key factor in the success of new e-learning provision will be networking between trainers. It cannot become a practical reality without constant co-operation between literacy course tutors. One of the main aims of APOLL is therefore to strengthen communication among trainers, who frequently work alone.

On 12 February 2003, the day when Kofi Annan proclaimed the World Literacy Decade, the project portal therefore went live. This portal is specifically targeted at trainers working in literacy in Germany and gives daily updates on news and events connected with literacy, reading and writing problems, learning and e-learning. The sharing of knowledge is intended to bring together the world of literacy in Germany and to enhance its quality. The portal acts as a service agency, raising public awareness while also providing an area protected by passwords for course tutors to ask questions and offer each other advice, to exchange the teaching materials that they have devised, to download images to make up information booklets, to take part in surveys and to chat with experts in education and literacy

In Germany, 271 Volkshochschulen provide literacy courses taught by around 800 trainers for 20,000 learners. After just four months, over 200 course tutors have registered with the portal and are actively exchanging ideas. The project has thus reached its first objective. People struggling on their own locally can now make contact with each other, can get to know one another and can swap ideas and experiences. The trainer portal makes it possible to find people to talk to within the region and in other parts of the country, to discuss the particular problems of individual learners and to ask for help from colleagues who may be facing similar problems. At the same time, the portal is also a channel to discuss private interests such as holiday plans or good wines, since a community is a social phenomenon and should not be reduced exclusively to professional matters if people are to enjoy using it.

The APOLL Menu

The main task of APOLL is, however, to develop an Internet-based learning platform. The portal will deliberately be nothing like traditional school and will draw on areas of real life in designing learning. Learners will, for example, be able to set themselves weekly goals in their own online diaries: buying a travel ticket, using an automated bank telling machine, filling out a form or reading the news. The exercises in the syllabus for each learner will vary, depending on the type of learning and prior knowledge, and will assume about half an hour’s learning per day. The learning material will be presented through video clips, audio files and simple, self-explanatory graphics. Every exercise that a learner does will be evaluated online to assess learning progress and report back to the tutor and the learner.

There will be no set learning route; instead, this will need to be designed freshly for each individual, thereby achieving the best possible match with the learner’s level and speed of learning.

The overriding principle will be that of active experimentation with the system, which will allow for step-by-step learning. Stages can be missed out, however, and exercises repeated as often as the learner wants. Individual learning routes can be built up using learning modules, which will themselves be constantly updated through individuals’ active learning. Learning will become enjoyable and fun, so that the reward for solving a writing problem will go straight back to the learner. Learning will become an experience of constructive interaction and greater freedom.

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