Federal Funding Fosters Senior Digital Learning

A small number of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects focused on connecting seniors. Here are a few highlights.

Concern about seniors being left behind in the digital divide is not a recent phenomenon. Some efforts date back to the mid-1990s. Others emerged when the federal government began to pay serious attention about a decade ago.

The Obama Administration has made 21st century telecommunications technology a priority for all Americans. Faced with the Great Recession, the President signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009. This economic stimulus package included funds to expand broadband infrastructure, increase the number of public computer centers and implement broadband adoption programs. ARRA funds created the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), administered by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA).

In his January 14, 2015 announcement of Broadband USA’s plans to help with community broadband plans, NTIA Administrator Larry Strickland stated, “Our grantees also have established or upgraded 3,000 public computer centers, trained more than four million people and helped roughly 735,000 households sign up for broadband.” BTOP funding ended in December 2013. A small number of BTOP projects focused on seniors. Here are a few highlights.

Meeting Specific Community Needs

BTOP projects required collaboration among community partners. In San Francisco, the Department of Aging and Adult Services received a BTOP grant to create a digital literacy program for seniors and people with disabilities. This project engaged 54 San Francisco facilities that serve the target population. The project evaluation’s findings about which seniors are most likely to be online mirror the data we reported in our previous article, with two important additions. “…users tend to be younger, English speaking, have earned a college degree, and are in good health compared to nonusers.”

San Francisco public officials made continuation of this program a priority by creating SF Connected. This initiative provides free computer tutoring and support to Bay Area seniors and adults with disabilities through the work of Community Technology Network, Community Living Campaign and Self-Help for the Elderly. Classes are offered in four languages in addition to English: Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese. Senior centers serving these language populations are among SF Connected’s partners. Clearly, the recommendations made in the evaluation of the BTOP project informed the implementation of SF Connected. Take a look at the success stories section of its web site.

Building on Community Strengths

Recognizing the economic need for broadband in Northeast Ohio, One Community successfully leveraged BTOP funding to engage community organizations in providing digital literacy programs. The city of Cleveland, like other places in the Rustbelt, was hit hard by the recession of the early 1980s. Community-based organizations, like the Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center (ASC3), participated in the BTOP effort, Connect Your Community.

ASC3 began in 2001, when local business and neighborhood leaders envisioned a different kind of community center – one that focuses on computer training, so that residents would have the skills to compete in the 21st century digital economy. The City of Cleveland, foundations and individual donations enabled the new organization to set up a computer lab in ASC3’s historic building. In 2002, ASC3 had 30 students in two classes. Those numbers grew rapidly. By the time BTOP funding became available, ASC3 was well established as a strong community partner.

ASC3 has a new initiative, Connect-2-Lead, targeting community volunteer leaders in Greater Cleveland. This initiative follows the BTOP broadband adoption model of offering digital literacy training, refurbished computers and Internet access. Its goal is to enhance the participants’ digital skills and tools to advocate on behalf of the community. This program initially will run from June 1, 2015 through March 31, 2016.

Aging… with Attitude

New York City created a citywide technology network with federal stimulus funds, partnering with a number of organizations. Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) played a major role in developing this program offering free computer and digital literacy classes and creating new technology labs across the city. As BTOP funding came to an end, OATS re-launched Senior Planet, which first came online in 2006.

With more than 70 partner organizations, OATS maintains the most comprehensive communications technology program for seniors in the country, managing 24 technology labs across the city. In addition to the website, the Senior Planet Exploration Center is the first older adult community center that focuses on technology. The demand for these services shows in the numbers: the Center is visited by an estimated 15,000 annually and SeniorPlanet.org logs more than two million unique visitors each year. OATS is moving beyond city limits, as state of New York seeks to provide similar services in other parts of the state, especially rural areas.

Making Necessary Adjustments for Target Audiences

Connected Living, a BTOP project in Illinois, targeting seniors and people with disabilities in 23 low-income housing residences and 37 nearby neighborhood sites (religious institutions, senior-services agencies and community organizations). The project’s final report indicated increased socialization, better understanding and participation in online commerce, and more active civic engagement for those who completed its program.

Connected Living reported that one barrier to adoption among participants is low literacy. Project managers adjusted the program by making changes in signage and in the training curriculum. Partnerships with local literacy organizations provided volunteers trained to work with project participants who needed such assistance. The project also encountered a higher than anticipated number of participants with cognitive and learning disabilities, who found it difficult to complete the 12-week training curriculum. The class schedule was adjusted accordingly.

Clearly, these programs exemplify the importance of fostering community collaborations, positive aging, adaptability to specific senior populations, and sensitivity to older learners when promoting digital literacy. Next time we’ll look at a few non-BTOP projects that are also helping seniors get online.

By Cecilia Garcia.