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Of hot tubs and Beowulf
e-learning for seniors

By Mark Notess / May 2007

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I recently sat with a nonagenarian relative, trying to teach him how to use a program for designing and printing greeting cards. He spent all afternoon rehearsing the steps I'd shown him, hoping he would remember. I could tell this experience was difficult for him. His mind is still sharp and his memory good. But he had trouble remembering and executing all the mouse movements and keystrokes. Also, some of the interface concepts were incomprehensible to him: Why did he have to scroll through a list, select something, and then click a button?

This experience made me wonder whether I, with my computer science degree and decades of computer-related work, will find myself in the same situation when I am 92. It could happen! Once I retire (and I hope to someday), it's just possible I may not want to keep up with the latest interaction styles and technical terminology. I probably won't sit in front of a computer all day. And so my mental models of computers, software, and the Web will gradually slip behind the mainstream of technical change. I can well imagine myself, at 92, finally having the time to learn Old English so I can read Beowulf in its original form. But what happens when I sign up for an online course in Old English, or for the Beowulf discussion forum, will I know how to participate? Will the changes in graphic design leave me confused about what's a button and what's not? Will I know where to click, if clicking is still in vogue? Will I know the social conventions and vocabulary that have evolved in these environments?

The technology pundits would have us believe that because technology is getting more powerful it will also get simpler and easier to use. If the last decade or two is any indication, we should be skeptical of such predictions.

Sixty-nine million baby boomers are nearing retirement age in the U.S. alone. Marketing machines are revving up, trying to figure out how and what to sell to this financially attractive demographic. Online services, including e-learning, are a burgeoning potential market. Older boomers are already joining online communities like, a sort of MySpace for grown-ups. Eons is full of ads chasing boomer purchasing power. Online groups include investing, bookaholics, boomer music, and one geared for the single boomer called simply, "Hot Tub." Another site, and made for "Boomer Babes," offers advice for elder care, financial planning, and girlfriend getaways.

Will sites like Eons succeed? There is no doubt aging adults are turning to the Internet for entertainment and education. Most sites already offer informal learning opportunities. Will boomers seek out more formal online learning as they age? Given the popularity of social networking sites, will Elderhostel start offering 3-D virtual world tours in places like Second Life? Opportunities for both formal and informal online learning abound, but this potential is counterbalanced by a variety of technical and social barriers.

The most written-about barrier is that aging brings with it physical and mental changes to which the youth-oriented design and technology of the Web imperfectly adapts. Yet there are other barriers as well. Older learners may have less patience with the rapid pace of change that characterizes personal computing and Internet technologies. But if they don't keep up, effective participation in the online learning ecosystem will be difficult. For a more detailed look at these issues, Lesa Lorenzen Huber and I have written "Online Learning for Seniors: Barriers and Opportunities," also just published by eLearn Magazine. Our article explores opportunities in the senior online learning market and the barriers to more widespread uptake of formal and informal senior online learning. We find that in addition to the oft-touted age-related changes inhibiting Internet use by seniors, there are also cohort differences and stage-of-life needs that will affect how and why older adults use the Internet and avail themselves of online learning.


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