Connecting the disconnected

One of the things I do is teach technology to older people, especially those for whom it is still something new. These are typically people who have a very rich background which doesn’t happen to include computers. The basics of cell phones are fairly easy for them to grasp because they have used telephones to communicate for quite a long time, and their experience typically includes wireless home phones. So the “leap” to cell phones is really not that great, although there is a steep learning curve beyond simply answering the phone and ending a call. Not so with computers.

Computers have practically landed in their laps over the last couple years, full grown and ready to be their means of integration with the rest of the world today. Many have dodged the bullet, so to speak, by having a secretary or other, younger, worker interact with computers for them. But then they retire, and there is no one to do it for them any more.

There are also many who had embraced computers early on, and followed along with their development. But the changes are harder for them to manage now. Learning is not as easy. They tend to want to freeze time where they are comfortable, or at least slow the pace of change so they do not feel left behind.

Technology today represents a difficult place for the older adult. The constant changes require continual, rapid learning while traditional learning paths are becoming more difficult for them. And here’s the kicker: the assumption today that everyone has access to a computer and can use it. Product instructions assume prior knowledge of or familiarity with computers. Computer courses assume participants have at least some familiarity with computers, with a pace set for a much younger generation.

I see the ones who have fallen through the cracks, and it is not a happy picture. These are people with a very rich background. This is the World War II generation through the sixties. Yet their experience and competence pales for them compared with what they see “kids” capable of doing today. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard one of them say “I’m so stupid,” I could retire.

My main job (the one I actually get paid for) is finding ways to make learning to use computers and technology easier for older adults. So here are some tips for the rest of you out there trying to connect with the older generation:

Tip #1: Analogize. Tell a story. Make a comparison they can relate to. Accuracy is not as important as relevance. Here’s a handy example:

There was a discussion among a group of seniors of varying levels of computer experience about the difference between a hardware firewall and a software firewall. The easiest explanation I could give, and one which they all instantly understood: “You have a house, and you do not leave the door open so that people driving by can see inside (and decide whether to drop in and help themselves). In fact, most of you live in a gated community [this is Florida; everyone here understands the concept of gated communities]. A hardware firewall is like a gated community, keeping out unauthorized people. A software firewall goes a step further. It’s like having a high hedge around your house so if someone actually gets through the gate, they can’t even tell your house is there, much less see what’s inside.”

More tips to come…

5 Responses to “Connecting the disconnected”

  1. Brian Says:

    On the money. I can’t wait for your follow up posts.

  2. pde Says:

    Congratulations on your article series about teahing computers to older people.
    I happen to be working on that too, indeed it is totally rewarding, there is nothing like seeing the satisfaction older people get from acquiring knowledge and geting control over technology. I am grateful but also feel very responsible for my job.
    Thank you for sharing these tips. It would be nice to share more whenever you have time and inspiration!

  3. Bruce Says:

    Dear Ms. Bean,

    I have recently opened a computer repair and internet cafe in PA. My business partner and I want to help the Seniors in our community enjoy the benefits of using the computer and the internet. From Skyping with their grandchildren, creating Word documents to save their secret recipes, downloading and listening to their favorite music, to filling out forms for Medicare Part D that is now only online. I have only read your first and second tip and have decided I have found the best site to help us in our endever. Looking forward to reading all your work regarding ways to make learning comfortable for Seniors. If you have anything specific you’d like to share, we’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you,



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