Last week’s annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America was an opportunity to share what we’ve learned so far about technology training for mature adults – and to get insight on how to keep improving it.
Technology literacy remains a critical issue for mature adults. According to the Pew Research Center’s latest poll, only 42% of adults age 65+ use the Internet vs. 79% for all adults.

Being able to wield the power of the Internet is a key to successful aging. Every day more essential information is online – from Medicare and prescription drug coverage benefits to health conditions and treatment options. You need technology skills just to apply for a job these days and employers say the top disadvantage for older job seekers is the lack of current skills. Staying connected to family and friends is even more important as we get older, and email and social networks are where that’s happening.

Two people working on the computer togetherAt the meeting, Chin Chin Lee of the University of Miami and I presented our research to evaluate Oasis Connections, our computer and Internet curriculum. The results provide evidence that the program is effective at helping people build their skills, knowledge and comfort using computers. (For details, please see the Executive Summary and our presentation.)

What makes it work is a focus on helping people overcome their intimidation and build confidence and success. Friendly materials with step-by-step instructions, large readable text and screen illustrations demystify technology. In course evaluations, students tell us they especially value the hands-on activities and ample time to experiment and get past the fear that they’ll break something. Most important is the instructor’s role in creating an atmosphere of acceptance and fun, patiently answering questions, and encouraging students to learn from each other.

The peer learning approach is a key for other researchers at the GSA meeting. Bob Harootyan and Frank Slobig from Senior Service America described how they have trained SCSEP participants to serve as peer coaches for older adults who are building basic technology skills. Bo Xie from the University of Maryland presented research on collaborative learning strategies that actively engage students in working together to find health information on the Internet. The approach is especially useful in classes with varied technology skill levels – a common challenge – to help less experienced students learn from peers with more experience. We’re looking closely at how these strategies can benefit our audience.

Many thanks to Sara Czaja and Chin Chin Lee at the University of Miami’s CREATE program for helping us take the next step to improve our program, and many other researchers in this field for advancing our knowledge of ways to close the digital divide for mature adults.