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Wired seniors
Online learning is not just for kids anymore

By Judy Grover / June 2005

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You might have heard: The fastest growing segment of the U.S. population has passed age 50. Over the next decade, baby boomers will retire in droves with their recently acquired computing skills intact. Meanwhile, the online presence of Americans now aged 65 and older jumped 25 percent over the last year, to a total of almost ten million surfers, according to a new study by Nielsen/NetRatings. Seniors are logging on more than ever and will surely create a new market for online learning. But where are the classes specifically geared towards older learners?

Before seniors can be cultivated, instructional designers must recognize common physical limitations of older students, which often involve diminished vision and coordination. Studies show that seniors tend to be slower at navigating the Web, visiting fewer pages than their younger counterparts. As a result, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) has developed guidelines to help make online materials more easily accessible for mature users.

NIA recommendations include larger body text and even larger headers and sans serif fonts such as Helvetica. The most important information should be displayed at the top of Web page, and clear summaries and details should be utilized to aid seniors in their navigation.

These standards seem obvious enough, but a study conducted by the Software Usability Research Lab (SURL) at Wichita State University found a wide range in the level of compliance by sites that claim to be designed for users 50 and older. The summary of the report states, "Results indicate that a majority of the sites complied to guidelines related to basic navigation and content style, but not for text size, text weight, or site map availability." This is surprising, the report further states, "given the fact that one of the most fundamental guidelines for developing reading materials for older adults is to provide enlarged and highly contrasted text."

Hands-on Learning

What's even more surprising is the lack of resources, it seems, provided to teach older users (those who have long since retired) how to navigate the Web in the first place. Elizabeth Isele is founder and president of, a nonprofit organization that seeks to educate those older seniors who don't necessarily bring tech skills to the table. CyberSeniors runs computer-learning centers to teach older adults how to use computers and access the Internet through a hands-on curriculum. Started in 1998 with 12 seniors in Portland, Maine, the program has grown to include hundreds of centers throughout New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Oregon, Texas, and most recently, South Carolina. According to Isele, CyberSeniors has now trained over 22,000 seniors since their humble beginnings. In 2003, the program won the "Mind Alert" award, sponsored by the American Society on Aging and the MetLife Foundation.

A primary goal of CyberSeniors, says Isele, is to "transition seniors who are traditionally book learners." Unfortunately, however, "there are not enough classes to teach seniors how to do this; to enhance life-long learning." Perhaps that's the reason her program, partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been so successful. Services like her own are few and far in between. According to Isele, "So many people say seniors only want the technology to keep in touch with their grandchildren. Sure, that gets them started but when they come in, once they see what's out there, they want so much more than that."

What about older people still in the workforce that might not be as tech-savvy as their younger counterparts? Marian Stoltz-Loike, CEO of SeniorThinking, explains that her consultancy's mission is to offer online tech classes to "the mature build employee excellence across generations." According to Stoltz-Loike, the need to retain mature employees and keep them well-trained and up-to-date is critical. "People over 50 may also be less familiar with e-learning, and sometimes with technology, than their younger colleagues. Also, "at times," she says, "even if they are proficient in using technology, they may not use the same vocabulary for discussing technology or features of a Web site or e-learning, as that used by younger colleagues. One way we solved this was by defining 'technology words' when we used them."

A Burgeoning Market

The recently released Pew Internet and American Life Project entitled "Older Americans and the Internet" provides much insight into the future of seniors online. It states that 22 percent of Americans 65 and older use the Internet, a figure that has increased 47 percent since 2000. And the study specifically says that once seniors get online, they are just as enthusiastic as younger users, representing a huge untapped demographic. E-learning providers must recognize this market and take advantage of it.

Boomers are at the door.


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