Most of the people who come to computer training at our public library are older seniors with a wealth of life experience, feeling the pressure from their kids, or their grocery store, or their friends to get online. Trying to do a new thing is humbling. Trying to do a new thing that your 9-year-old grandson can do without thinking is more than humbling—it can be humiliating.
So, I always give a pep talk at the start of each beginner computer tech class. It goes something like this: “If you get frustrated with the computer, take a moment and think of all the things you can do really well. You’ve mastered some amazing skills that you could do without thinking. Remember how awesome you are at those things, and remember that this is something totally new.”
Teaching technology classes to seniors means we start at square one. I used to think this meant basic mouse and keyboard skills, but, after a couple of years of delivering tech classes to seniors, I’ve realized that I’m making a big assumption. Teaching tech literacy doesn’t negate literacy itself. When I tell them, “Think of all the things you can do really well,” I always assumed that included reading and writing. But a couple of years later, I realize that there are many people who have done quite well in life without having to learn to read and write.
I used to make sure I delivered my classes to all the styles of learning with great handouts, dynamic presentations, and clear instructions—but that was under the assumption that my class knew how to read and write. It took me a while to understand this fundamental barrier to success. I thought a tech class of senior citizens was a class that knew everything except computers.
I had overlooked a lot of the clues. The keyboard stymied many students. Unless they had worked with typewriters, the keyboard was brand new. So, a mystified senior who can’t type didn’t clue me in to a literacy problem. I shrugged it off as a tech problem instead. When students weren’t following the easy steps on my handouts, I thought that they were frustrated or distracted. I didn’t clue in that they couldn’t read. When we worked in Google and I asked them to search the name of our city, I thought it was just clumsy fingers and arthritis-riddled knuckles that caused them to type in the wrong letters. Half-a-dozen obvious examples of illiterate seniors finally got my attention. Now I have a before-square-one plan!
First of all, I use more pictures and fewer words in the handouts.
When we do step-by-step learning, I make sure I don’t simply refer the class to the handout if they are lost. I say the steps out loud and demonstrate on the projected computer for them.
When we play around in Google, and I ask them to Google a specific word, I demonstrate by typing that word for them. Most people can copy the letters on the screen.
The biggest difference is knowing to expect functionally illiterate people in a computer class targeted to older seniors. Drop the assumption that people who have run companies, raised families, and dedicated their lives to their communities can read and write. It is possible to get by without literacy skills.
Luckily, the Internet is very forgiving for people with low literacy levels. Correct spelling has become obsolete. Most computing is icon-based. Many of the most popular apps can be enjoyed without reading or writing, just clicking. We can help enhance and connect seniors, regardless of their ability to read or write, through computers. For me, it just meant dropping assumptions and moving my “square one” back a few spaces.
Sarah Csekey is a librarian working at the Orillia Public Library in Ontario Canada. She is an amateur futurist and knitter, and she loves to answer questions (even if you don’t ask her to.)