Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Computer literacy for all ages

While there is a lot of hype these days about making technology available to kids, elementary school isn't the only venue for encouraging computer skills. Today, the North Carolina News & Observer ran an article about the importance of teaching computer literacy to another user group and one on the opposite end of the age spectrum: older generations. The story caught my eye because of a number of recent class discussions revolving around accessibility issues and serving users with special needs. (It always surprises me how unintentionally well-coordinated different classes can be).  The article describes a program at Pace University in New York that offers computer courses to elderly citizens interested in learning to use email, ebooks, or even just to be a little more comfortable navigating files and basic programs on their home computers. I was particularly impressed by the age of the oldest senior to participate in the program so far: 101 years old! The strongest incentive for the 75 and over age group to improve their computer literacy is to facilitate communication with children and grandchildren who increasingly rely on digital means to communicate and share pieces of their lives. This certainly isn't a surprising motivation; in the simplest terms the older generations attending these classes just want to be able to navigate our increasingly technologically complex world. They don't want to feel left behind.

In addition to poor eyesight and arthritic limbs, some elderly users striving to familiarize themselves with computers face the challenge of fading memories. To overcome this barrier, re-offering classes can be very helpful; the program coordinator has found that repetition is one of the best ways for the elderly to learn new technical skills. Jean Coppola describes the benefits of repetition saying that after "the third or fourth time, something clicks… By the second time, they’re beginning to understand. By the third or fourth time they’re comfortable with it. They’re no longer confused. They’re no longer afraid.” An interesting part of the article is the description of the "sensitivity training" that student tutors go through before they begin leading classes. These sessions help the college-age participants really understand the special needs of the elderly user group. Anyone who has helped an older relative or neighbor struggle to learn a technical skill that comes so naturally to many of us we don't even have to think about it will agree that there is certainly a place for computer literacy programs in libraries, and the elderly are just one population that can be targeted for such outreach. I'm sure our libraries would benefit if librarians tried to devote a little more time to personally understanding the positions, difficulties, and information needs of special user groups and designing new ways to make library collections and services more universally accessible.

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