Technology without a doubt has made our lives easier. We can now keep in touch with friends who are half-way around the world, get to-the-second scores of our favorite football matches, set reminders to pick up some fruits from the market on our way home and so much more. Technology has without a doubt made life’s complexities easier to handle. But it has enabled us to do more while understanding less of the finer details of what it is we are doing. It has also exposed how vulnerable we can be in our offline life.
For those of us who grew up in the age of technological expansion (from the mid-90s), we have been fortunate to be able to adapt and evolve with the advances. It was easy for us to be able to watch, learn and adapt, as we no longer need to sit at a desktop computer with dial-up internet to do our research for homework or an assignment. We could now just pick up our phones and obtain information at the touch of buttons.
However, there is a generation of teenagers and young adults who were born into this age of technology, where a smartphone camera snapped pictures of them the day they were born and using a computer or tablet is second nature to them.
We really have to start examining whether smartphones, tablets, laptops and Google are doing more harm than good to the mental capacities of Guyana’s youth. As information becomes readily available in our palms and where libraries are becoming obsolete, our young adults do not benefit from a more intensive research process and it is easy for them to slip into the growing ‘cut and paste’ phenomenon.
Our young adults and teenagers are now so dependent on technology, that it has started to affect their literacy skills, as cutting and pasting information found on Google and Wikipedia for an assignment, SBA or report does not reinforce any of the language skills learnt throughout their formal education.
UNESCO reported Guyana’s literacy rate to be 88.5% in 2015 which was up from 85% in 2009. But does this rate truly reflect the level of functional literacy of our youth so dependent on auto-correct? Auto-correct, after all, does not discriminate among “there”, “their” and “they’re” if the user does not know which is the correct term to be used.
Inglis and Aers (2008, p.32) note: ‘It is the ability to read and write which makes a person ‘literate’, with varying degrees of fluency.’ The National Literacy Trust, however, includes reference to speaking and listening in its definition of literacy: ‘We believe literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen well. A literate person is able to communicate effectively with others and to understand written information.’
As UNESCO reports Guyana’s literacy rate rising, so too has the global level of literacy risen. However, the issue of functional illiteracy now arises, perhaps in part due to technology. Functional illiteracy is a term used to describe reading and writing skills that are inadequate to cope with the demands of everyday life. In Guyana, this seems to be a reality of many of our young people, as they are losing the ability to read and write at an appropriate level.
As Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram become more popular with Guyanese youth, a dangerous infiltration of ‘internet’ language ensues in their everyday life. It never ceases to astonish my colleagues and I when we see students use internet slang in official emails and communication and worse yet, in reports and assignments submitted for grading and even in tests.
In an English-speaking country, where over 90% of the student population attending the only National University are locals who grow up speaking and writing English, many programmes at the University of Guyana still require English and/or some written and oral communication courses to be done, especially within the first two years of joining the University. This trend is not likely to curtail, as we find more and more these days our young adults just do not come prepared with the requisite functional English literacy skills.
Often times, one or two university-level English courses still prove to be insufficient training for students who have to pursue final year projects which require a written thesis and an oral presentation. Project supervisors often complain they spend more time correcting grammar and sentence construction rather than reviewing the technical aspects of the project, as thesis drafts are so poorly written and put together.
Parents will have to try to encourage our young ones to take a break from smartphones and tablets every now and then to do some physical or sport activity, or even to read a book (not an e-book). Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki, a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, has done considerable work on how physical activity and exercise can be used to improve learning, memory and higher cognitive abilities in humans; and may even offer protection for the brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. Technology is now a part of our everyday lives, but moderation in this critical stage of brain development may be the key to a successful wholesome offline life.
As Guyana prepares to embark on a new chapter in its history, it is especially important that our youth are not left behind as we begin to witness an influx of expatriates with special skills needed for our new oil and gas economy. Yes, we need to keep up with technological advances but not to the detriment of our functional literacy and social skills. If we indeed wish to see our own thrive, we need to ensure the basics are not neglected in pursuit of ‘keeping up with the times’.
Inglis, F. and Aers, L. (2008) Key Concepts in Education, London, Sage
Heal Guyana is a registered, not-for-profit organisation which functions as a civil society platform that focuses on empowering Guyanese and influencing citizens toward positive behavior change.
The views expressed herein are those of the Author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Heal Guyana or its Executives.