|navigate: home: magazine: spring/summer 2000: article|
Older adults explore cyberspace in computer classes|
by Ellen P. James
Penn State Continuing Education, in cooperation with Elderhostel of Boston, hosted a five-day program in January for seniors who want to take a giant step forward into the Information Age.|
Seniors from State College, Pa., and across the country took Eldernetting classes to learn about the basics of using the World Wide Web. During the weeklong class, they created their own Web pages, sent e-mail, navigated Web sites using search engines, browsed through chat rooms and went Web shopping. Each participant had a high-end computer to use, along with an e-mail account and network connection.
When using a computer for the first time, there can be some frustrations and headaches, Chris Rynd, Eldernetting instructor, said. Trying to control the mouse and even using the keyboard can be difficult.
To help when cyberspace became too overwhelming, students also were given pink foam hammers, called computer controllers, to pound at uncooperative computers. In addition, participants attended lectures addressing issues and controversies concerning the Internet, such as security, hackers and information decency.
The resources offered through Eldernetting are geared toward seniors who refuse to be left behind in the Digital Age. Dolores Simpson, a retired teacher residing in State College, was eagerly anticipating the first class.
Im so excited to attend this program, because I really feel that it is important to stay current and understand this technology, Simpson said. The Internet and e-mail are really the way to go. We have a computer from 1986, but its used mainly for word processing. Now I want to go in-depth and update my knowledge. I dont think the Internet will replace books. Books will never be replaced in my life. I dont miss a month at the library, but Im always willing to learn about different things. Simpson, like many older adults, wants to use e-mail to keep in touch with family members who live across the country.
This class reflects the growing trend of older adults who are exploring the resources offered through the Internet. While seniors in our country are the fastest growing population segment, they make up the smallest percentage of e-mail and Internet users. A study conducted by Microsoft found that a modest 37 percent of 50-year-olds own and use computers. At older ages, computer use decreases. Only 4 percent of adults in their 80s own a PC.
However, there is still the dedication to lifelong learning that fuels older adults desire to understand and use computers. Seniors are eager to log in to cyberspace, see what all the hype is about and use the new technology.
Leading the charge into the Information Age is a three-generation team of Eldernetting instructors. Penn State associate professor of education Barbara Grabowski, along with her mother, Pat Hopkins, who coined the term Eldernetting, and nephew Rynd, are entering their fifth year of teaching this Elderhostel program.
Older adults interest in the Internet has grown significantly through the years, Grabowski said.
When Grabowski and family first launched the Eldernetting program, it was unusual to have a computer class tailored to older adults.
In our modern world where computers seem to be integrated into every facet of our lives, it is easy to forget that the majority of the population rarely ever saw a computer growing up, Grabowski said. I think a lot of older adults were discouraged when they first started taking computer classes. There are a lot of computer experts out there who really cant teach, rather, they just tell them what to do. That can be pretty intimidating for the novice. There will be people in our class at all skill levels, from those who cant turn on a computer to those who are pretty savvy. Overall, our philosophy is about encouragement and getting them to demonstrate what theyre learning.
While the number of older adults using computers may be lagging behind the younger generation, there is a growing contingent who are interested in staying in touch with family and friends using the vast resources of the Internet and e-mail.
I think older adults want to keep up with changes and issues, because as people grow older, their world can become smaller, Grabowski said. Sometimes because of health and mobility issues, they cant go where they used to, but the Internet can open their world back up.
In addition to her teaching duties and research initiatives, Grabowski is writing a book with Hopkins about using computers. Their book is designed to be an easy-to-use guide for the computer novice. Grabowski also is one of the pioneer faculty to teach on-line through Penn States World Campus.
At the end of the week, Hopkins said group members were all very interested and excited learning about computers. They are easy to teach and absorb the material fast.
While staying at University Park, the Eldernetters got the chance to tour the campus, visiting sites of interest like the Palmer Museum of Art and the Creamery.
My time at the Eldernetting conference has been a lot of fun, Amelia Kafaf said. I did have some initial skills, but it helped enhance them and helped me understand where to go on the Internet. Kafaf, who is from New Jersey, is visiting Penn State for the first time. Eldernetting is fabulousthe learning experience, social interaction and accommodations are all wonderful. I am very impressed by the technology of the class and the accommodations of The Penn Stater.
The possibilities offered through this Eldernetting program are as varied as the possibilities found on the Internet. Older adults can use the technology to stay mentally active by checking out the latest news and information sites, visiting seniors-only chat rooms and researching travel information.
Nancy McCord, conference planner for the Elderhostel programs, describes the Elderhostel courses as educational adventures. These classes are for older adults who have a passion for learning and a sense of adventure.
Penn State is offering future Elderhostel programs on topics such as golf instruction, bird migration at Shavers Creek Environmental Center, a careful look at the modern Olympics (1896-2006), the Cold War, Fred Waring (the man who taught America how to sing) and Dixieland Jazz.
Elderhostel is a nonprofit organization, based in Boston, committed to being the preeminent provider of high-quality, affordable educational opportunities for older adults. Programs like these illustrate Penn States commitment to lifelong learning, McCord said. Whether it is summer youth camps or programs like Elderhostel, Penn State is providing education for those at all stages of life in our society.