Note: I attempted to interview a member of my chosen information community of senior citizens learning computers. However, due to an emergency in the family of my interview subject; we were forced to postpone the interview until after the deadline for this post. Therefore, I’ve had to take a different path on this blog post compared to what I perceive is the goal of the assignment.
Fisher & Durrance (2003) write “The leaders of an information community are knowledgeable about access services and employ several strategies to foster the community’s growth and health.” For approximately six of my eight years working at a public library, I have been training adults on how to use computers. Using that definition, that would make me a leader of this information community of senior citizens who are looking to learn about using computers. As such, I can answer a couple of questions about this community.
Why do senior citizens want to learn more about computers?
There are many answers to this question. In my experience, the primary reason for older adults choose to gain more information about computers is to use it as an information resource for themselves. I have heard students say that they want to learn more about using e-mail in order to keep up with their children and grandchildren. They will want to learn about the Internet so they can get information for themselves, whether that is news or personal welfare or a hobby they have. Some will come in just to learn about trying to access my library’s downloadable media resources. It varies from person to person, but it ultimately boils down to the idea of access to information for these older adults.
In my research, I see a fair bit of consistency between the reasons my students come to class and why seniors in general want to learn more about computers. A 2014 Pew Research Center study shows that 75% of senior citizens who are active Internet users say that it is “easier to communicate with family and friends” thanks to their Internet use. Other primary motivations for using the Internet was shopping and gathering information on health issues. It should be noted that the same study says that only 18% of seniors age 65 and older have e-readers and/or tablet computers.
Shoemaker (2003) conducted a study of senior citizens taking a computer class and conducted interviews with six of the students. Among the reasons they cited for wanting to take the computer class was:
- One was “surrounded” by computers at her job as a sorority housemother and was “fascinated” by them.
- Another had some computer skills, but wanted to learn more about searching online and downloading.
- A male with existing computer skills uses his computer knowledge to better connect with his sons, who are computer experts.
- His wife attended classes so she could learn to use the Internet to “find out more about the world.” She also said that she did not want to be “left back in the 50s.”
- Another couple said they wanted to use email to communicate with their children. The wife also cited her volunteer work as a reason for learning computer literacy.
Three of the female interviewees viewed computer skills as a way to enter the modern world. One said of computer literacy “It’s the thing!” Another, who was less enthusiastic about learning these skills; said that she did not want to “fall behind” modern society.
As far as the general primary information needs for senior citizens, Williamson (1997) created a list of information topics in order of importance from her study of senior citizens’ information needs. Health information was the number one priority from her study, with income and finances in second followed by recreation. Among the topics also listed were government, housing and accommodation, retirement benefits, legal issues, family and personal affairs, employment, services such as Meals on Wheels and volunteer opportunities.
How does this community gather this information?
There are multiple options for learning computers at the disposal of this community. Speaking for myself, I have taught classes on using the mouse, the keyboard, Microsoft Word and Excel and using the Internet. I have assisted with classes on using email and downloading e-books. All of the classes we do are hands-on practice with guided instruction on all of the steps. I will not say that the way I teach is perfect because I know it is not. In general, it is fairly effective for most students.
Of course, there are always books they could use. I will often be asked about computer books such as “Computers for Seniors for Dummies.” In our classes, we do give suggestions for books to look at for the various subjects. We are still a library, after all.
There are online resources to use as well. A popular one that I have recommended to many people, not just seniors is from the Goodwill Community Foundation. Their GCF Learn Free project at www.gcflearnfree.org is a comprehensive portal of learning on multiple subjects including computers. I have found it to be a very good complement to my teaching.
As for the literature that exists, the American Library Association lists as part of their recommendations for library services for older adults the following:
5.7 Consider providing computer and Internet courses specifically designed for older adults to accommodate a slower pace of instruction, provide sufficient time to develop “mousing skills,” and allow for the possibility that some older adults may have visual, physical, or hearing disabilities. If possible, include individual tutoring provided by peers or others.
I am still working on obtaining more literature to complement the above information.
What are the obstacles that have to be overcome?
The obstacles vary from person to person. Some older adults just have a natural fear of trying something so different. I am constantly reminding them that it takes a lot to break the computers and that it is OK to make mistakes. One of my favorite sayings that I have used for years is “there’s nothing wrong with making a mistake.”
One issue that I have been working on fixing is that the icons on the computer, specifically for the Microsoft Office programs; are very small and hard to see. In our classes, we project the monitor the teacher uses on to a white screen. No one can really see the icons on the projection, especially from the back of the room (and I do include myself in this). For some of our senior citizen students, it is very difficult to see the icons on their computer screen because Microsoft made them so small and our computer monitors are set to the highest resolution and cannot be adjusted. We are experimenting with using the Windows Magnifier tool as a potential fix, though I am not convinced it will work.
Another obstacle is simply an individual’s motor skills. Some older adults will not be able to click a mouse correctly right away due to the muscles in their hands not letting them press just one mouse button. The desks and chairs are not the most comfortable or adjustable, which also causes problems for all students.
The best piece of literature I have found to show that this is natural was written by Smith (2012) who used her own experiences from attempting to teach senior citizens how to use the Internet. She notes that many of her students had never even touched a computer before attending her classes. Once they overcame that obstacle, there were more issues to be had; including those blurry, wavy letters e-mail providers use to make sure whomever is signing up for their service is human and not a robot.
Shoemaker (2003) wrote about the physical and mental hurdles older adults must overcome in learning a computer. She notes that cognitive skills start to decline in most people around age 40, which delays reaction times and reduces the ability to process information. In the interviews she conducted, a couple of participants noted their fear with using computers. One female said that she did not enjoy using computers because “I’m afraid of them.” She also noted the typical hurdles of any classroom setting, such as people dominating the class conversation and wasting others time.
There are common threads in the paths senior citizens take to learn computer literacy. The reasons for why they want to learn vary slightly, but ultimately center on the themes of information and connections with others; meaning either their family or the modern age. There are many ways to get the information they are looking for, but it takes time and patience to develop those skills. Sadly, the abilities of these older adults can be a major obstacle in their way. But I know for a fact that with practice and patience, they can develop these computer literacy skills because I have seen it happen myself many times.
American Library Association, Reference and User Services Division. (2005). Guidelines for Library and Information Services for Older Adults. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/libraryservices
Fisher, K., & Durrance, J. (2003). Information communities. In K. Christensen, & D. Levinson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of community: From the village to the virtual world. (pp. 658-661). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412952583.n248
Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (2014). Older Adults and Technology Use. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/04/03/older-adults-and-technology-use/
Shoemaker, S. (2003). Acquisition of computer skills by older users: A mixed methods study. Research Strategies, 19, 165-180. doi:10.1016/j.resstr.2005.01.003
Smith, N. (2012). Teaching computer skills to senior citizens: A library assistant’s learning experience. Georgia Library Quarterly, 49, 34-37.
Williamson, K. (1999). The role of research in professional practice: With reference to the assessment of the information and library needs of older people. Aplis, 12, 145-153.