Pearson, the education company, has pitched up a pop-up event space at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, to raise awareness about the threat illiteracy poses to the global economy as part of its Project Literacy campaign.
Pearson says current estimates that illiteracy incurs a global economic cost of $1.9 trillion is just the “tip of the iceberg,” according to a press release. The company claims the actual cost of illiteracy is likely to be far higher than previously thought, due to its role in creating and proliferating huge social problems.
Illiteracy doesn’t just cost the economy in terms of preventing people entering the workforce — a lack of basic reading skills can lead to everything from malnutrition, to homelessness, to infant mortality.
I visited Pearson’s Davos booth and donned a huge over-size VR headset.
Inside was a Samsung Gear VR:
First I was transported into a school classroom in India, where 287 million people do not have basic reading skills, according to Pearson. The kids had rounded on me and were glaring, while the teacher angrily pointed her finger in my face.
The image in front of me was still rather than animated, but I could still turn my head to get a 360-degree panorama of the room. When my eyes focused on particular focal points, denoted by little crosses, the girl whose eyes I was looking through began to tell her story, which I heard through the headphones.
“Sandhya” was eight years old when she was forced to drop out of school in order to start working and support the family. At 12, a government official requested she return. I’m a fly-on-the-wall to her first day back, when she sits among children four years younger than her — including a sibling — who tease her for her lack of reading skills.
Women make up two-thirds of the world’s population of illiterate adults, according to UN figures. Pearson says in a press release that each additional year of schooling a girl receives “increases her earning ability by 10-20%, reduces the amount of children she will have by 10% and reduces the probability of post-natal child mortality by 10%.”
Even though I was looking around a still image, it was somewhat intimidating to have the whole eyes of a classroom — including the teacher’s — on me.
On the next headset I tried, I was taken to a messy American kitchen with crockery left out on the side and an over-flowing garbage bin. Overweight kids were having a food fight with fried chicken, a withered-looking older lady was sat in the back room listlessly watching the TV.
When I looked down, I could see the arms of an obese woman.
“Terri” had struggled at school and now, as the mother to two children, struggles to perform every day tasks. She can’t read the nutrition labels on food, she’s not sure what dosage of medication to give her mother, and she gets frustrated by all the overdue bills that relentlessly arrive through her letterbox — because she can’t understand what’s contained inside the envelopes — and she suggests there are problems within her marriage too.
Some 34 million adults in the US do not have basic literacy skills. Here you could see the real extent of the impact not being able to read has on an entire family — not just an individual.
By sitting delegates down and literally weighing them down with the huge customised headset, Pearson is likely to attract more attention of its Project Literacy project with this experience, as opposed to more traditional appeals.
The graphics of this experience were nowhere near as realistic as other simulations and games I have tried out, but Project Everyone will be hoping its marketing move to tie together real-life stories with the multi-trillion dollar cost of illiteracy to the economy will attract the attention of some of the economists, business leaders, politicians, and academics attending Davos and encourage them to raise the subject of illiteracy as they talk about the biggest economic subjects at this year’s annual forum.
While Project Everyone is led by Pearson, it has more than a dozen official partners including advertising agency FCB Inferno, charity Save the Children, and The World Literacy Foundation.
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