Helping Seniors Bridge the Digital Divide

Many organizations across the country are working diligently to help seniors overcome the obstacles they face in broadband adoption. Here are just a few of them.

Pew Research Center recently issued a report on who is online and who is not. As we’ve discussed in previous articles for the Digital Beat Blog, demographic factors such as age, income and educational attainment characterize the 15 percent of Americans who remain offline. Seniors are most likely to be offline, with 39% reporting they do not use the Internet. Yet, there has been significant progress in getting seniors online. In 2000, 86% of adults age 65+ were offline. This progress is due in part to baby boomers entering the age 65+ group, but also to the work of many organizations across the country working diligently to help seniors overcome the obstacles they face in broadband adoption. Here are just a few of them.

SeniorNet: The original computer learning project for older adults

SeniorNet is a nonprofit organization specializing in computer and Internet education for adults age 50+. Its roots go back to a research project in 1986 at the University of San Francisco, funded by the Markle Foundation. The project sought to demonstrate that computer technology could expand a sense of community among older adults who not only learned to use the technology but also shared it with their peers. The ultimate goal was to enhance elders’ lives. The initial project involved five Learning Centers for 20 seniors, using computers donated by Apple Corporation.

SeniorNet has grown to more than 60 Learning Centers in the U.S. and other countries, staffed by more than 3,000 volunteer instructors and mentors. The volunteers include older adults who exemplify the “seniors teaching seniors” methodology. The Centers use over 130 standardized courses ranging from computer basics to advanced digital imaging techniques. They strive to keep pace with new developments, with newer offerings to learn the latest technologies and gadgets. Access to the Centers and the learning modules is through annual membership dues. Members may also purchase various products and services through the SeniorNet Mall.

Over the years SeniorNet has expanded its partnership base while also extending its outreach to underserved areas and populations. With funding support from IBM it opened five Learning Centers on Native American reservations. Other philanthropies have helped SeniorNet increase the number of Centers, including some in low-income urban areas, and to establish programs with affiliate organizations in other countries such as Nepal, Korea, Russia and New Zealand. The Centers are located in diverse places such as public libraries, senior centers, community centers, schools, and health clinics, each with an average of 6-10 computers. The courses stress a step-by-step “hands-on” and stress-free approach to learning, with one learner per computer. After nearly 30 years, SeniorNet counts more than two million people who have benefited from its computer and Internet classes.

Generations on Line

Generations on Line (GoL) was founded in 1999 by communications professional Tobey Dichter, whose mother inspired a passion to change the face of aging and kindle respect for older people. The internet in 1996 seemed ideal to connect the generations. This Philadelphia-based national nonprofit develops software programs and organizational partnerships that make it easier for seniors to learn how to access the Internet. Since its inception, GoL has helped more than 80,000 older adults through its training tutorials, now offered in Spanish as well as English. It has expanded its reach to 1800 institutions serving older adults in 49 states.

A key factor in GoL’s success is its ability to design materials that are easy for seniors to use. The software takes first-time Internet users through step-by-step instructions with colorful graphics and large print. Using GoL, seniors learn at their own pace, without the stress that often occurs in classroom settings. Senior Service America, Inc. (SSAI) engaged GoL in 2009 to implement its Digital Inclusion Initiative, which trained older workers in the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) to coach their peers on Internet use. In 2014 GoL also received foundation funding to develop an online job-seeking training program that was piloted with two SCSEP programs in Baltimore, MD.

GoL now is venturing beyond personal computers, developing versions of its software for iPads and Android tablets. In partnership with the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, GoL created “Sip & Swipe Cafes” through which the tablet edition was piloted in 15 senior centers across Pennsylvania. GoL provides training for coaches and technical support. “Tablets are easier,” Dichter reported. “The new tablet users are fascinated with the media-rich opportunities that were more difficult and time consuming to access on personal computers.” In March, 2015 GoL announced a nationwide launch of “Sip & Swipe Cafes” at the Aging in America conference. [Editor's note: Note: Cecilia Garcia serves as an advisor to Generations on Line.]

Computer Learning Center – Department of Elder Affairs (DEA), Springfield, MA

This comprehensive Computer Learning Center (CLC) for seniors began five years ago when the Springfield DEA’s SCSEP became a partner in the aforementioned SSAI DII program. Since then, the program has expanded to a five-day week with four hours of classes each day. Training includes online job searches/applications, email, and Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The Center has 10 PCs, but it recently added classes for the iPad, thanks to donations of a few tablets from SSAI.

The CLC is run by a former SCSEP participant who was a DII peer coach, became certified in computer training, and was hired by the DEA in 2012. The program is open to anyone age 50+. About half of the learners are new SCSEP enrollees, who are required to go through the GoL basic tutorial. Those who are computer proficient do so quickly, while others need to start from scratch. Approximately three-fourths of the learners are inexperienced with computers and the Internet. Therefore, the one-on-one approach remains a key element in the training, as do the themes of “keeping it simple” and focusing on the individual senior’s areas of interest on the Internet.

An average of 15 learners per week spend about one month completing all the offerings (i.e., including Word, Excel, etc.), but there is no time limit on involvement. The CLC has become a popular resource of the Springfield DEA, which has partnered with the public school system to assure that its WiFi service is efficient and up to date.

SBSS Cyber Café

St. Barnabas Senior Services (SBSS) began its mission to “provide and promote a continuum of innovative services that empower a diverse community of elders to live well, feel well, and age well” in 1908, long before the age of computers, much less the Internet. Its service area in Los Angeles is very diverse, the home of Chinatown, Koreatown, Filipinotown, and many older Latino residents. Those who use the organization’s services are typically in their mid-70s, rely on minimal monthly Social Security payments, speak little English and have few friends or relatives who can help them.

A graduate student approached SBSS seniors in 2002 to see who wanted to learn to use computers. No one responded. The executive director then recommended that the student focus on things that are directly relevant to the seniors’ interests or what could help them solve a problem. This change to a topical approach was successful and SBSS opened the Borchardt Cyber Café.

The demand has been so great that SBSS upgraded the facility in 2010 to include new computers and WiFi, thanks to corporate support. Seniors can open email accounts, connect with families at a distance via Skype, access news in their native language, and get one-on-one coaching assistance. The Borchardt Cyber Café is a recipient of the American Society on Aging’s MindAlert Award in the category of Lifelong Learning.

eWIRED: An Elder Empowerment Initiative

eWIRED is a senior digital literacy project created by Alliance for Aging, Inc. (AAI), the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) for Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, FL. In 2009, AAI’s Board endorsed broadband access for elders as an important strategic initiative to close the “grey gap.” The pilot project focused on low-income minority elders and used Older Americans Act Title III-B supportive services dollars for contracts with three competitively-selected organizations. One provided refurbished computers, Internet access, and training to frail elders in their homes. Another conducted both at-home and group training sessions at two senior centers, and a third provided group instruction at its senior centers. They also provided one year of free service and tech support.

In the first year, 81 elders were trained in group sessions and 77 frail elders received instruction at home. More funds in year two allowed four contractors to train 430 elders at senior centers or at home. To control total costs, the third year used two contractors, and training was limited to group sessions. During its three-year period, eWIRED directly provided computer instruction, hardware, tech support, and Internet access to 730 elders. Even more learned from peer coaching and self-paced learning. Learners’ ages ranged from the early 60s to the 90s.

Lessons learned during eWIRED’s first two years led to refinements in the third year. These included 1) more emphasis on individualized instruction, peer-to-peer interaction, and self-paced learning; 2) use of multi-language formats; 3) consistent on-going tech support; and 4) greater involvement of community partners and family members. The direct cost per learner was $622, including computers, software, licenses, training, and service connection fees. We agree with AAI that this per-person cost is “A great deal!” eWIRED is an excellent model for AAAs and other community organizations to implement their own senior digital learning program. This initiative was highlighted during the May 2012 “Getting Seniors Online” conference hosted by Benton.

Lessons Learned

Clearly, there are many approaches to successfully bring older Americans online. We’ve presented a few examples here and recognize that there are many more. Our concern continues to be the hardest to reach – those older Americans who are low-income and have less education. We need more programs that reflect the best components from the examples above: peer coaching (one-on-one if possible), self-paced learning in a cordial environment, simple and clear guidance, and an emphasis on what’s relevant. It is best if these learning approaches are combined with access to low-cost tablets that are easy to use and affordable broadband or free WiFi at home. Hopefully, the Federal Communications Commission will address affordability with a 21st Century version of Lifeline – one that helps more low-income Americans, including seniors, access the Internet in their homes.


By Cecilia Garcia.