ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Online learning for seniors
barriers and opportunities

By Mark Notess, Lesa Lorenzen-Huber / May 2007

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Internet use by seniors has increased dramatically since the beginning of the millennium. According to data gathered by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in December 2000 only 15 percent of Americans aged 65 or older used the Internet [16]. By February 2004, the percentage was up to 22 percent [17], and current usage by seniors is 32 percent , now evenly divided between men and women [35]. It is predicted that the number of users over age 65 "could more than double by 2010" [36]. The Internet is increasingly used for information dissemination, putting non-users at a growing disadvantage [10, 22]. For example, deciding whether or not to participate in Medicare Part D, and which plan to choose, would have been virtually impossible without the Internet.

The main uses of the Internet by people over 60 are email, news, health information, product information, family research, and travel reservations [18, 19]. Less common uses include online purchasing, searching government sites, online gaming, and online photo sharing.

Even though seniors' use of the Internet is more limited than use by their younger cohorts, the rapid growth, along with the inevitable effect of younger users aging, suggests that the majority of seniors will be using the Internet for ever-widening purposes within the decade. With greater Internet penetration among the elderly, the opportunity for seniors to take advantage of formal or informal online learning likewise increases. Seniors are already using the Internet for just-in-time practical learning: Should they change their medical coverage? How much could they get for Aunt Myrtle's Tiffany Lamp on eBay? How can they access email when they aren't at home? What did the doctor mean when he said there is fat around the liver? But besides practical knowledge, the Internet offers senior learners the opportunity to learn new job skills, access cultures and communities, and satisfy an intellectual curiosity that doesn't die upon retirement.

Formal online learning is becoming more commonplace among adults, although the Pew project has not published numbers on the penetration of formal online learning for seniors. In a 2000 survey they found that 5 percent of adult Internet users of all age groups had taken an online course for credit [26]. A 2005 report from the Oxford Internet Institute in the United Kingdom indicates that one-fifth of UK Internet users have used the Internet for distance learning [13]. The Sloan Foundation reports an 18.2 percent growth in online enrollment higher education classes from 2003 to 2004 [2]; it was also reported that "two-thirds of all schools offering face-to-face courses also offer online courses" [2]. And this year, Michigan became the first state to require all high-school students to take at least one online class in order to graduate [27].

The number of available online learning opportunities continues to grow rapidly [3]. Yet mere opportunity does not guarantee access or use by seniors. This article identifies potential barriers to the rapid diffusion of online learning among seniors and examines the opportunities that may emerge if those barriers can be overcome.


While there are stereotypes about older people not being interested in using the Internet, being unable to learn how to use the Internet, and being negative or anxious about Internet use, research does not find any of these myths to be true [30]. However there are barriers to Internet use and online learning by older adults. And current barriers in the uptake of online learning by seniors generally parallel the barriers to Internet use by seniors. The issues can be grouped into the three categories of normal age-related changes, cohort differences, and stage of life [12].

Normal Age-Related Changes
Aging-related changes in perceptual, cognitive, and psycho-motor abilities and their impact on computer use are well documented [10, 29, 34]. They include normal changes with age in vision, hearing, perception, memory, comprehension, information processing, working memory, and/or motor dexterity. Put simply, normal aging means a general slowing down of the physical and cognitive abilities needed to use a computer. And aging accompanied by one or more chronic illnesses can mean even more severe declines in any of these abilities. People with impaired vision or problems with motor dexterity are only half as likely to use the Internet as people without impairments [32].

In response to these well-documented declines in ability, the U.S. National Institute on Aging issued basic recommendations to help make the Internet senior-friendly [28]. They include using a sans serif typeface, double spacing all body text, and keeping the organization of the website simple and straightforward. Having seniors involved in the design process of new technologies can insure that the technology meets a senior's needs, wants, and abilities [15].

Aging vs. Dynamism
If normal aging can be characterized by a slowing down, the Internet can characterized by a speeding up. Dynamism in the broader computing ecosystem receives little attention in relation to senior use. Web interfaces are highly malleable, with rapidly evolving user interface technologies (e.g., HTML, DHTML, Flash, AJAX). In addition, there are inconsistencies in organization, terminology, navigation, and conventions between or even within sites, over time. There is little data about design issues related to the Internet and older adults outside of human-computer interaction literature [10]. Older computer users' complaints about "complexity and jargon" indicate that the broader computing ecosystem is more of a barrier than declines in physical and cognitive abilities [19]. In a focus group study of older adults, 53 percent of the frustrations in using various technologies were attributable to design issues [37].

There is a general youth-bias in the technology ecosystem, and a stereotype of seniors as technology-averse. Designers prefer to design for people like themselves, rather than for people in a different stage of life with very different wants and needs [23]. Designers are inclined toward the new and cool; creating a moving target of Web-based interfaces that requires constant relearning. "Crossing the digital divide is something that has to be done many times, not just once"[21].

Besides the rapidly changing ecosystem, there is the cognitive load that goes along with the safe and effective use of any personal computer:

  • password management
  • file system
  • storing and backing up content or bookmarks
  • attaching files or pasting file contents
  • configuring network security
  • safely installing and updating plug-ins
  • assessing present and future hardware, software and connectivity needs
  • assessing validity and reliability of online content-source may be harder to identify

It is small wonder that many older adults shy away from computer and Internet use. An awareness of slowing down due to age-related changes, frustration with complexity and jargon, and the fear of unwittingly sending their credit card number to millions are barriers that are hard to overcome for many older adults. This lack of long-term, stable interaction patterns and technical environment for online learning is perhaps the biggest barrier to realizing the potential of senior online learning.

Cohort Differences
Although Internet use by people over 65 has almost doubled in the past six years, the majority of today's seniors are not regular Internet users. The main reason many older people don't use the Internet is that they lack access to a computer and/or broadband availability [30]. People who are now over 65 belong to a cohort that has been called the Greatest Generation. Born between 1922 and 1945, they can be characterized by dedication/sacrifice, hard work, conformity, law and order, respect for authority, patience, duty before pleasure, and honor [1]. The technologies they introduced or used included motion pictures, records, the atomic bomb, jukebox, party line telephones, and jet airplanes. The oldest of this cohort retired before the personal computer was a common piece of office equipment.

In contrast, the Baby Boomers have been characterized by optimism, personal gratification, team orientation, health and wellness, personal growth, youth, work, involvement [1]. Technologies introduced or used by Boomers include television, transistor radios, computer punch cards, albums, 45s, 8-Tracks, cassettes, and PCs/Macs. Born between 1946 and 1964, this giant cohort has transformed society as it has moved through it. Boomer guru Ken Dychtwald boasts, "Baby Boomers didn't just use computers-they transformed technology" [14].

Cohort differences can suggest explanations for different rates of participation in online learning. Besides age-based barriers there are cohort-based barriers faced by the Greatest Generation in regards to online learning. The first is a cohort-based psychological barrier to access and participation [7]. For example, today's older adult may fear:

  • Impostership. Seniors may not feel they have the skill or right to participate in online learning.
  • Cultural suicide. New knowledge might exclude them from cultures that have defined and sustained them.
  • Lost innocence. Some older adults have a preference for clear right and wrong answers, not shades of gray; newer social constructivist pedagogies are to be found online as well as in the classroom and may hold less appeal for seniors [20].

A second barrier is trust. While users of all ages need to evaluate websites for trustworthiness, inexperienced older users can be easy targets for Internet scams and schemes [6, 39]. Some of today's older adults may lack trust in the Internet in general and consequently distrust the content of online courses.

A final cohort-based barrier is the perceived usefulness of the Internet and of online learning. Non-Internet users over 65 say that they have no use for the Internet, while Internet users say the main benefit of the Internet is "usefulness" [30, 19]. Although Internet use declines with age in cross-sectional studies, for Internet users the popularity of email actually increases with age [32], demonstrating interest in only the simplest and most practical uses of the Internet by the oldest of users. Since most members of this cohort retired before the Internet or computers were a common piece of office equipment, today's seniors lack experience with potential uses of these technologies. Households in which one member uses the Internet or computer at work are more likely to use a computer or Internet at home [39]. Online learning, with the concomitant needed technological expertise, may not be perceived as useful by members of the Greatest Generation who have little experience with the usefulness of these technologies.

The Boomers have barriers to participating in online learning as well: employment, family, and caregiving roles may limit time available for pursuit of online learning. Older Boomers may be intimidated by the rapid evolution of the Internet and limit Internet use to the simple or necessary. Some Boomers may not be able to afford broadband access. Nevertheless, most Boomers today are still working and most have access and support for computer and Internet use at work. This does not however guarantee time or access to online learning opportunities for Boomers.

Stage of Life
The current cohort effect may be mitigated as more online-learning-experienced Boomers move into their senior years, helped in addition by the likelihood of Boomers needing or wanting to continue working longer, thus having greater access to the Internet. But there are also social factors related to stage of life that, combined with the rapid evolution of technology and the focus of technology companies on the younger market, may cause a flattening of the online learning adoption curve well short of its potential.

Social theories of aging lend some insight into the disconnect between later stages of life and use of new technologies. Disengagement theory, proposed by Cumming and Henry in 1961 suggests there is a mutual and mutually beneficial distancing of aged persons and the general society [9]. The larger social system deals with the "slowing down" of older generations by institutionalizing mechanisms of disengagement or separation from society. Disengagement is viewed as adaptive behavior, benefiting both the individual and society. While empirical research has not generally supported disengagement as necessarily adaptive for the individual or society, it may explain in some measure the oldest-olds' technology non-adoption behaviors.

Social exchange theory, an application of rational choice and utilitarian theory, was applied to aging by Dowd [11]. He suggested that relationships between elders and society are subject to a type of cost-benefit analysis. The theory suggests that social interaction and activity decrease with age because elders offer fewer "returns" with their outmoded skills so society is less inclined to "invest" in them. To balance the exchange equation, older adults withdraw. In the larger social picture, older adults can compensate with non-material resources such as wisdom and volunteering and so remain valuable members of society. But in terms of the technology revolution, social exchange theory offers an explanation for low participation rates by seniors in new technologies. Designers and corporations may be less likely to invest in products for older adults because there is not a perceived substantial return. Similarly, older adults may not be willing to invest time in overcoming barriers to technology because they do not perceive substantial returns on that invested time.

Both of these theories suggest that older people may be disinclined to keep up with technological changes while technology companies may be disinclined to invest in products and services for elders.


We have described well-documented barriers to online learning and Internet use in general by older adults. Some of the cohort-based barriers may be erased with the passage of time. Barriers associated with age-related sensory, perceptual, psychomotor and cognitive changes can be addressed through better design and user training [8]. Other barriers, such as dynamism in the environment, may be more difficult to overcome. There are good reasons to address these barriers to online learning. As people age, they still have the need to learn, connect, and grow. People who are retired have more time to engage in learning opportunities. Educational opportunities in later life meet the following needs:

  • Learn new things. Whether it is a just-in-time learning about Medicare Part D or tracing family genealogy, the desire to acquire new knowledge exists throughout one's lifespan and is critical for adults who want to stay up to date in a changing world.
  • Add to social networks. Older adults prefer to learn in a classroom setting, and lifelong learning courses are a great way to meet people with similar interests. Providing online classrooms can offer some of the benefits of classroom learning, even as the Internet is generally helpful for people who live alone, are geographically isolated, or who have restricted mobility [10].
  • Maintain cognitive and mental health. A wealth of new research suggests that learning new things and keeping an active mind is the best way to maintain cognitive and mental health throughout life [40, 38].
  • Develop new job skills. Lifelong learning courses can offer opportunities for latent creativity to bloom or developing new job skills for older adults who want or need to stay in the job market [8].
  • Recreate. Later life offers the time to explore learning goals that younger people are too busy to attempt. Developing a reflective mode of thinking, tackling Joyce's "Ulysses," contemplating the meaning of one's life, and preparing for death are wisdom-related learning goals well-suited to later life [4].

Current Available Opportunities
According to Beem [5], there are more than 500 lifelong learning institutes designed for older adults in the United States. Elderhostel institutes account for 300 of these. Globally, the University of the Third Age offers lifelong learning programs at more than 500 sites. According to Rabbi Sky, who directs the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, "It is people who never went to college and people with Ph.Ds who taught college. It's people whose minds are still working, who want to learn new things and who don't want to live in isolation." [5].

Online learning can reduce isolation for the many older adults who do not live near a lifelong institute or have challenged mobility. Internet-savvy seniors do form online communities through sites such as,, and Many of these sites also offer some learning opportunities. For example, SeniorNet offers courses in literature and poetry and AARP has discussion forums for history buffs on topics including the Korean War, the Depression, and the Civil Rights Struggle.

Yet the potential of online learning for seniors is far from realized. Knowles suggests that adults learn best when they know why they need to know something, are treated as adults with valuable life experiences, and can use what they learn to address current life needs [25]. Learning about technology might be one of the best topics for an online learning course. A recent survey in Scotland found that nearly half of older adults who use a computer learned to do so through a course [19]. Using streamed video so that older adults can learn through behavioral modeling would facilitate learning about technology through online learning.

In summary, current online learning opportunities for seniors may not be designed to meet the learning needs of today's Greatest Generation seniors. Technological and stage-of-life barriers may prevent access and use of online learning opportunities as well.

Overcoming Barriers
Overcoming these barriers may simply be an issue of waiting for today's Boomers to become tomorrow's seniors. But providing more accessible and relevant online learning environments for today's older adults would not only benefit tomorrow's older adults, it might also make the Internet a friendlier place for all learners. Policy or collaborative standards for concepts, terminology, layout, and navigation would ease the use of multiple sites by seniors and the less-than-savvy user. Standardizing authentication, form fill-in and submittal, and discussion browsing and participation would facilitate participation in online learning communities. A promising direction just emerging is the design of radically simpler user interfaces for Internet access and use [32, 31]. If simplified user interfaces can become accepted by older adults for general communication and information-seeking tasks, simplified online learning environments could also hold some promise.

Kim, Bonk, and Zeng found through survey research that many current online learning courses are viewed as less engaging or motivating than face-to-face courses [24]. Low-quality, boring content is also a deterrent to online learning. There is a need to design more engaging online learning in order to create a more successful learning environment for online learners, particularly older learners who are often not motivated to participate by job requirements. To improve the online learning experience, survey respondents suggested better evaluation of online learners' achievement and satisfaction, clearer reward systems and incentives for completing online learning, and training in how to be an online learner. Older learners are not likely to participate in online environments that are boring or lack motivating content and activities.

The main opportunities for online learning for seniors are likely to be found in formal or informal learning that supports seniors' stage-of-life needs or personal interests. Analogs to this kind of learning may be found in successful face-to-face learning such as Elderhostel or other senior classes, as well as in such self-directed learning tools as self-help books, magazines, and newsletters. In addition to pragmatic just-in-time learning, seniors show an interest in cultural enrichment courses. Credentialed education is a less likely choice for those over 75, but younger retirees may seek credentialing for late life careers or skilled volunteerism.


Although substantive reasons exist for the potential value of online learning for seniors, growth is likely to be slow. Of the barriers identified above, aging-related barriers seem the most likely to persist even after today's senior cohort is replaced by one having a much higher level of comfort and experience with both the Internet and online learning. Particularly troubling is the tendency of researchers and writers on this topic to focus primarily on Web page design issues such as font size while ignoring the cognitive complexity issues lurking beneath the Web page's shiny exterior or hiding in the broader computing environment. These issues are further exacerbated by a rapidly changing technology industry that pays scant attention to senior needs. Further work is needed to articulate more clearly these complex issues. In particular, it may be worth considering the extent to which these issues may need to be addressed by policy that focuses on senior needs as distinct from the needs of the "disabled."

Part of the joy of learning in later life is that it is not necessary for a job, and there need be no grades or required homework. Learning that is an unpleasant struggle is likely to be avoided by older adults. But barrier-free online learning presents opportunities for a later life filled with the riches of knowledge and wisdom, shared with a global community now available through the technology of the Internet. As demographic shifts swell senior ranks, it may become more possible both to identify and overcome the existing barriers to senior online learning.


1. Alexander, C. (2001). Understanding generational differences helps you manage a multi-age workforce. The digital edge (July, 2001). Retrieved March 5, 2007 from:

2. Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (2005). Growing by degrees: Online education in the United States, 2005. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium. Retrieved April 27, 2006 from:

3. Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (2006). Making the grade: Online education in the United States, 2006. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium. Retrieved January 29, 2007 from:

4. Ardelt, M. (2000). Intellectual vs. wisdom-related knowledge: The case for a different kind of learning in the later years. Educational Gerontology, 26, 771-789

5. Beem, E.A. (2006). Let OLLIS bloom: A rabbi, a billionaire and a vision. Aging Today, 27, (6) 13-15.

6. Benbow, A. E. (2004). Increasing access to reliable information on the world wide web: Educational tools for web designers, older adults, and caregivers. In D.C. Burdick & S. Kwon (Eds.) Gerotechnology: Research and practice in technology and aging. New York: Springer Publishing.

7. Brookfield, S. (1999) What is College Really Like for Adult Students? About Campus, 3 (6), 10-15.

8. Charness, N. (2006). Work, older workers, and technology: Training and design can level the playing field. Generations, 30(2), 25-30.

9. Cumming, E., & Henry, W. (1961). Growing old: The process of disengagement. New York: Basic Books.

10. Czaja, S., & Lee, C. (2003). The impact of the internet on older adults. In N. Charness & K.W. Schaie (Eds), Impact of technology on successful aging. New York: Springer Publishing.

11. Dowd, J. (1975). Aging as exchange: A preface to theory. Journal of Gerontology, 30(5), 584-594.

12. Dutton, W.H. (2006, April). The internet generation: Digital divides and choices shaping diffusion and use. Talk presented at the Rob Kling Center for Social Informatics, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

13. Dutton, W.H., di Gennaro, C., & Hargrave, A.M. (2005). The Internet in Britain: The Oxford internet survey (OxIS). Oxford, UK: Oxford Internet Institute. Retrieved April 21 2006 from:

14. Dychtwald, K. (1999). Age power: How the 21st century will be ruled by the new old. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

15. Eisma, R., Dickinson, A., Goodman, J., Mival, O., Syme, A. and Tiwari, L. (2003). Mutual inspiration in the development of new technology for older people, In Proceedings of Include 2003, Helen Hamlyn Institute, London, March 2003.

16. Fox, S. (2001). Wired seniors: A fervent few, inspired by family ties. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved January 5 2006 from:

17. Fox, S. (2004). Older Americans and the internet. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved January 5 2006 from:

18. Fox, S. & Madden, M. (2005). Generations Online. Retrieved April 27 2006 from

19. Goodman, J., Syme, A., & Eisma, R. (2003). Older adults' use of computers: A survey. Proceedings of HCI 2003, Bath, UK, September 2003.

20. Islas, L. (2004). Collaborative learning at Monterey Tech-Virtual University. In T. Duffy & J. Kirkley (Eds.), Learner-Centered theory and practice in distance education: Cases from higher education. Mahwah, NJ; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

21. Ito, M., O'Day, V.L., Adler, A., Linde, C., & Mynatt, E.D. (2001). Making a place for seniors on the net: SeniorNet, senior identity and the digital divide. Computers and Society, 31(3), 15-21.

22. Kaufman, D.R. & Rockoff, M.L. (2006). Increasing access to online information about health: A program for inner-city elders in community-based organizations. Generations, 30(2), 55-58.

23. Keates, S., & Clarkson, P.J. (2002). Defining design exclusion. In S. Keates, P. Langdon, P.J. Clarkson, & P. Robinson (eds), Universal Access and Assistive Technology. London: Springer-Verlag.

24. Kim, K-J., Bonk, C.J., & Zeng, T. (2005). Surveying the Future of Workplace E-learning: The Rise of Blending, Interactivity, and Authentic Learning. eLearn Magazine. Retrieved March 5 2007:

25. Knowles, M. (1980). Modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Chicago, IL: Follett

26. Lenhart, A., Simon, M., & Graziano, M. (2001). The internet and education: Findings of the Pew internet & American life project. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved April 27 2006 from:

27. Michigan requires online attendance. (2006). The Wired Campus. Retrieved April 27 2006 from:

28. Morrell, R.W., Dailey. S.R., Feldman, C. Mayhorn, C.B., & Echt, K.V. (2001). Older adults and information technology: A compendium of scientific research and Web site accessibility guidelines. Washington, DC: National Institute on Aging.

29. Morrell, R.W., Dailey. S.R., Rousseau, G.K. (2003). Applying research: The project. In N. Charness & K.W. Schaie (Eds.), Impact of technology on successful aging. New York: Springer Publishing.

30. Morrell, R.W., Mayhorn, C.B. and Echt, K.V. (2004). Why older adults use or do not use the internet. In D.C. Burdick & S. Kwon (Eds.), Gerotechnology: Research and practice in technology and aging. New York: Springer Publishing.

31. Moulton, G.M. (2006, October). Build it and they will come? Presented at Aging by Design, Bentley College, Waltham, Mass. Retrieved February 27, 2007, from:

32. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Economics and Statistics Administration (2002). A NATION ONLINE: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet. Washington, D.C., USA, Feb 2002. Retrieved March 5, 2007, from:

33. Newell, A.F., Dickinson, A., Smith, M.J., & Gregor, P. (2006). Designing a portal for older users: A case study of an industrial/academic collaboration. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI)13(3), 347-375.

34. Ownby, R.L. (2006). Making the internet a friendlier place for older people. Generations, 30, (2), 58-60.

35. Pew Internet & American Life Project (2006). Demographics of internet users. Retrieved April 24, 2006, from:

36. Research Overview: The Aging US Marketplace, Praxi Group, 2004.

37. Rogers, W.A., Mayhorn, C.B. & Fisk, A.D. Technology in everyday life for older adults. In D.C. Burdick & S. Kwon (Eds.) Gerotechnology: Research and practice in technology and aging. New York: Springer Publishing.

38. Rowe, J.W. & Kahn, R.L. (1998). Successful aging. New York: Pantheon.

39. Willis, S.L. (2006). Technology and learning in current and future generations of elders. Generations, 30, (2), 58-60.

40. Wolinsky, F.D., Unverzagt, F.W., Smith, D.M. Jones, R.,Wright, E., & Tennstedt, S.L. (2006). The effects of ACTIVE cognitive training trial on clinically relevant declines in health-related quality of life. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, (61B) 5, S281-S287.


  • There are no comments at this time.