Dickson M. Mwansa

How can the new media be used sensibly and effectively in literacy courses in combination with traditional methods? Dickson M. Mwansa describes a literacy project which attempted this in India, Bangladesh and Zambia. He was himself involved in the implementation in Zambia and describes his experience. Dickson M. Mwansa was formerly Dean and Professor of Adult Education, School of Education, University of Zambia, and is current Executive Chairperson of the Zambian Open University, a private institution focusing on distance education. The paper was prepared for presentation at the Seminar of the Commonwealth of Literacy (Collit) Project, held at the Commonwealth Youth Programme, Africa Centre, Lusaka on 8 April, 2003. He has in the past contributed articles to Adult Education and Development, on Literacy and Theatre for Development.

Demystifying Learning and Knowledge: Extending the Scope of Literacy


During the 1990-2000 decade the basic assumption was that investment in basic education would embrace adult literacy and illiteracy would be wiped out. Instead adult basic literacy was sidelined and rather than decreasing, illiteracy is numerically and differentially on the rise due to increase in population, decline in quality of basic education and increase in the quality of literacy skills required in modern times (Wagner, 2000). UNESCO estimates show that by 2010 while adult illiteracy will globally go down by about 11% (from 885 to 856 million), in Sub-Saharan Africa it will rise from 140 million to 147 million (Muller, 1997). In 1995, of the 106 developing countries that reported literacy statistics only 54 indicated reductions in illiteracy (Chiba, 1996).

In 2000, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh declared that technology could be used to enhance literacy. DFID shared this vision and committed British taxpayer’s money to an experiment in the use of information communication technology (ICT) in literacy in India, Bangladesh and Zambia. The experiment was co-ordinated by the Commonwealth of Learning located in Canada.

I worked on the Zambian experiment in the design of instructional materials, training of instructors and linking of print, electronic and traditional media to create a multidimensional learning design.

This article documents the experience of working on the project using both theoretical and hands-on techniques from inception to the end of the experiment. It focuses on the nature of the project, processes of knowledge construction, the social impact of the experiment and the lessons learnt.

Nature of the Project

The project ran for three years from 2000 to 2003 and was at national level jointly co-ordinated by the Ministry of Community Development and the University of Zambia and implemented at three learning centres. In selecting a centre, the project was guided by some principles that included the following:

  • The centre should not be a new structure but an enhancement to an existing centre

  • It must be a centre for multiple learning designs

  • Management must ensure multiple utilization and a sense of community ownership without being run by a committee

  • It should provide access to computers, internet connection and other support technologies such as printers, copiers, faxes

Three centres, among those organized by the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services of the Republic of Zambia, were purposively selected. The chosen centres were located in rural towns for easy access to electricity and had some activity going on.

Each centre had satellite centres as well. The centres were used for imparting ICT skills while satellite centres relied principally on teaching literacy through print media. Each centre had three to four computers, a printer, video camera, digital camera, cassette recorder, fax, copier and scanner, and an internet connectivition.

Objectives of the project

a. To promote the value and assess the effectiveness of technology-based community learning centres in the provision of literacy training in reading, numeracy skills and use and operation of information and communication equipment

b. To train literacy workers to be knowledgeable in applying technology-based training models

c. To produce appropriate and quality technology-based training materials

d. To provide lessons for wider replication of use of ICT in solving literacy problems


The project was managed at international, national and centre levels. At international level, a manager located at the Commonwealth of Learning in Canada coordinated the project. He interfaced with other levels of the project through internet and teleconferencing and field trips to the three countries. The manager was answerable to the DFID, which in turn reported to the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government Meeting.

At national level, it was co-ordinated by a National Steering Committee (NSC) comprising the Director for Community Development and his assistant, director and co-director of the project from the University of Zambia, experts in ICT and literacy centre and operations managers.

Below the NSC was created an Executive Committee comprising the project director, project co-director, who also was the expert in literacy, and an ICT expert. The two experts were responsible for training and design of instructional materials.

At centre level, centre and operations managers implemented the project. Centre managers were senior or provincial community development officers who played a supervisory role and reported to the NSC while operations managers were middle level staff within the Ministry also based at provincial levels. Operations managers were responsible for the actual teaching of the use of ICT.

Process of Knowledge Creation

The process of knowledge creation progressed in steps and was buttressed by work plans and budgets drawn up at centre and national levels, discussed and approved at international level.

Identification of Partners: the first step involved identification of key partners in the development of materials. Besides the Ministry for Community Development and Social Services, the Ministries of Health and Agriculture were central to development at grassroots level. They were requested to participate and they nominated extension officers. Thirteen extension officers took part in knowledge creation through workshops.

Choice of Subjects and Themes: the choice of subjects and later themes was influenced by findings from research studies that had indicated that among all materials used in literacy classes in Zambia (Mwansa, 1996), the primer on health and nutrition was perceived to be the most beneficial. Equally, evaluation of the literacy campaign in Tanzania (Kassam, 1988) indicated that participants valued learning which made them gain knowledge about health and nutrition. Further, needs assessment using participatory learning techniques was carried out to assess other learning needs.

Extension officers identified three diseases (malaria, diarrhea and HIV/ AIDS) and organic farming as the major themes on which the project could focus. Malaria was the number one killer disease in Zambia, followed by diarrhea and cholera, which annually affected large parts of the country during the rainy seasons; and the incidence of HIV/ AIDS was quite high. Organic farming was a new type of farming that had been adopted in the country in view of damaging effects to soils caused by repeated use of chemical fertilizers.

Training: this was done for extension officers. While attending workshops, extension officers researched and shared some knowledge and skills on the nature and causes, and prevention of the diseases, methods of structuring instructional materials using the Freirian approach, psychology of adult learning and the use of ICT in learning. Working in groups, they prepared different units on their chosen themes and collectively produced the first draft of the primer on health with 21 units. Each unit was divided into generative themes. They also produced an instructor’s manual.

Written in English, the primer was later translated by University students into three Zambian languages used in the three regions where the centres were located. While the primer was skeletal, comprising the generative words divided into phonemic families, the instructor’s guide contained a lot of activities aimed at helping participants explore their environments, values and beliefs and share their cultures. The manual encouraged participants to tell stories, share and record music and dances and evaluate the use of local knowledge on causes and cures for the diseases. Each lesson was intended to last for two hours.

A further dimension of material production was introduction of a syllable board. The board was introduced to accelerate and enhance word creation. The board is similar to a draughts board square, in size and foldable in half. It was constructed out of plywood and canvas material. The top part of the surface was covered with a commercially printed grid comprising 50 squares each one centimetre in size. On the left edge of the board, were printed five vowels of the Roman alphabet for guiding word creation. Syllable chips of all the letters of the alphabet, made out of cardboard, accompanied each syllable board. The syllable board was intended to act as a bridge between print and electronic media. On it, learners practised division of generative words into phonemic families and creation of new words. The syllable board promoted learning in a play way.

Field Testing: this involved testing of the primer, instructor’s guide, the syllable board and also included training of instructors in the use of the materials. A picture form of an evaluation tool was used to assess prospective learners’ attitudes to the materials, comprehension of content and illustrations. Two hired literacy experts did field-testing.

The findings of the test indicated some flaws in language use. It also indicated the attitude of the learners to the syllable board. The translated versions of the primer were couched in urban language containing lots of loan words not only from English but also from other languages. In rural communities, this usage of language presented problems of appreciation and comprehension. The test further indicated that the syllable board created overwhelming interest in learning in that it integrated learning and playing.

Computer Enhanced Learning: after the field test, the transition to electronic media began. The lessons in print were adapted to the computer with the aim of speeding up further learning and assessing the value of using ICT in communities where ICT had never been used before. At this stage, print materials were only used to back up ICT in case of computer breakdowns or disruptions to electric power supply.

Computer-enhanced learning among centre and operations managers involved learning how to use and maintain ICT equipment in their care; how to send and retrieve email; how to adapt materials to PowerPoint and how to help participants use PowerPoint to read instructional materials.

Computer-enhanced learning among participants was stepwise: participants learnt the basics of how to manipulate the equipment (opening and shutting computers), how to write their names using Microsoft Word and to print what they wrote. Second, they learnt how to use PowerPoint to actually learn how to read. Computer-enhanced learning generated great interest in computer use among learners and attracted other learners such as secretarial staff in government offices.

Linking Video and Traditional Media: after print and electronic media, a link was established between video and traditional media or drama. Drama is a familiar and effective form of teaching that has been widely used in Zambian society. In traditional society, it is used for teaching the young coming of age how to live in the world. In modern times, it is strongly integrated in various forms of development work. The link between video and drama is rapidly growing.

In the Collit Project, the introduction of drama was twofold. It was used as a tool to evaluate the knowledge and skills the participants had acquired and for extension of learning to the surrounding community. The video was primarily used for recording the process and outcomes of play making and when toured, for dissemination of information to the community. The transition from drama to video was also stepwise.

At each centre, participants in literacy classes created three dramas on malaria, diarrhea and HIV/AIDS to demonstrate what they had learnt from the primer. Each skit lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. In this step, participants were supported by University of Zambia students of theatre for development who had been hired as research assistants to facilitate the creative process. The next step involved performances in the community and holding discussions with audiences to assess the impact of the dramas. The discussions were followed by self-evaluation.

It was the triangular link between performance, discussion and evaluation of what was learnt that constituted an effective learning process. Through this, participants in literacy eloquently demonstrated deep knowledge of the social consequences of the diseases.

The video-recorded performances were edited by a professional videographer and later toured within the local communities. The instant consequence of showing the videos was that the performers, who were primarily women, emerged as heroines in the communities because they carried the messages through their images, and the demand to view the videos at different meetings (e.g. church, political) not related to literacy increased. The videos were used over and over to the extent of wearing them out.

Linking the Project to Other Institutions: the Collit project attracted participation by the Centre for Education of Rural People(CERP) based in the UK. CERP funded a research study to identify other learning needs, development of two print-based modules adapted to ICT and training of nine young people in materials production. The print-based materials covered organic farming and communicable diseases and were designed to be self-taught. Further, the materials were packaged into a disk and put on a website for increased use by others.

Monitoring and Evaluation: the project had two national evaluators and one international evaluator. National evaluators made periodic trips to the three sites and produced reports, which were shared among member of the NSC and the Executive Committee for action.

Achievements of the Project

The achievements of the project can be judged in relation to the objectives it set out to achieve as well as unintended effects.

First, the centres became focal points for organization of literacy, and distribution of information on health and agriculture. The module on organic farming became a self-teaching tool whose use has extended to many farmers in the three centres. It has found use in the other programmes.

Second, the project promoted horizontal co-operation among extension staff. The extension officers, from three Ministries (Community Development, Agriculture and Health), worked together at the centres and in workshops to prepare and test instructional materials which could be used in their work. This had not happened before. In the past, each ministry worked in isolation from the other.

Third, thirteen instructors were trained who can be relied upon to prepare instructional materials with confidence. They are young and from key ministries concerned with development at grassroots level.

Fourth, centre and operations managers have become quite skilled in the use of ICT and are able to generate more learning materials, which they can integrate in the literacy programme.

Fifth, the project resuscitated flagging interest in literacy work in the experimental centres. In all, 27 literacy classes were organized in which 651 people participated. The tests administered to assess the use of computers indicated that participants learnt some basic hands-on skills upon which further learning would be built.


The experiment showed that introduction of ICT for training in reading and operation of information and communication equipment was possible. This can be judged by the relative ease with which computer-enhanced learning was embraced in the print-dominated literacy programme. What slowed the speed and progress of technology use was disruptions to power supply and frequent computer breakdowns.

Training in the use of the computers brought new knowledge and skills to the operatives. Extension officers are now able to produce and package locally made materials.

The training for the ordinary people demystified the use of computers. At the beginning, it seemed that the participants would find working with computers unfriendly. The transition to the use of computers was aided by use of the primer and the syllable board. What was not guaranteed was sustainability of use of the acquired skills and continuous learning. This would require increased introduction of computers in the local communities. This area would require some external support because the government may not see this as a priority, in the same way that literacy has not been given much clout.

The project enhanced the capacity of local experts to manage and implement projects. While there were agreements on the purpose and objectives of the project, the design, implementation and evaluation were principally under national experts. This was different from many other projects in which national experts play only facilitative roles while ownership and control reside with external experts and funders.

Injection of a new project in an on-going project could have some disruptive effect. The CERP project had its own demands on time and, energy and had different expectations to be fulfilled to meet the mandate under which it was proposed.

The use of local people in creation of the video and dissemination of information could attract a large number of people to video because of the closeness of the source to the audience. The appearance of local faces provoked curiosity and interest in the content of the videos among people in communities.


Acquisition of computer skills is not beyond the abilities of participants in literacy programmes and operatives at lower levels of government structures. It can be done if executed in a stepwise fashion by linking what is unfamiliar to the familiar. The familiar was print and the unfamiliar was the computer with its software. The major hindrance to the spread of the use of ICT would be equipment and trainers ready to do the work at reasonable costs.

The experiment was funded at levels which may not be replicated when the experiment is taken to scale.


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Kassam, 1988 . Literacy and Development: What is the Missing Link in the Jigsaw Puzzle. Adult Education and Development.(31):125:137
Muller, J. (1997). Literacy and Non formal (Basic) Education- Still a Donor Priority? Adult Education and Development. (48):52
Mwansa, D.M. (1996). Community Perspectives on Issues of Motivation and Gender in Zambian Literacy Programs. International Journal for Qualitative Studies in Education.9 (2) 181-199.
Wagner,D. (2000).Literacy and Adult Education Executive Summary. Adult Education and Development. (55):133