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Senior service
aging learners are just like the rest of us

By Lisa Neal / November 2006

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Just as we wake up each morning a day older but don't usually label it "aging" or think about our deteriorating physical and mental capabilities, seniors seldom consider themselves "disabled." This is important to keep in mind when designing an online course for seniors: The barriers they face in online learning are not so different those experienced by the general public.

This idea was among the highlights in a talk given by Indiana University's Lesa Lorenzen Huber and Mark Notess at the recent Aging by Design conference at Bentley College.

Huber's and Notess's findings can be organized into two categories of focus: features that have no impact on users unless they're needed, and features that help everyone. The former category includes adjustable text size and contrast, and speech capability, such as those incorporated into the NIH Senior Health site. Elements like these can be designed to help users without demeaning or patronizing them, and to be easily ignored by uninterested parties.

The "help everyone" category addresses what I think of as the strain of modern life: multiple passwords, inconsistent registration processes, new technologies, and so on. Simplification and consistency benefit everyone, and there is no reason why things like registration should differ so much from site to site. I certainly get excited about the potential of new technologies, but it is sometimes easier to do something the same old way than to relearn a process that already worked. Taking this to the extreme, we are all trained from young ages to learn in a classroom: to listen, be attentive, take notes, and raise our hands when we have a question. Learning online is a challenge at first for anyone, which is compounded by the ever-changing myriad delivery technologies.

The oft-cited advantages of e-learning loom awfully large for seniors with restricted movement, or with restricted access to learning. An extreme example is an Alzheimer's caregiver who may be unable to leave his or her home but often has much leisure time for learning. While there is less need for credentials as this stage of life, there is no shortage of interests among those in the later stages of life.

Making it easy for seniors to learn online is really just the same as making it easy for everyone, with perhaps a little extra sensitivity to the particular needs of this demographic. Where there's a desire to learn there should be no insurmountable barriers.

As Pete Seeger sings: "I get up each morning and dust off my wits; Open the paper and read the obits; If I'm not there, I know I'm not dead; So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed…" Or, better yet, sit at the computer and take a course.


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    Lisa Neal
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