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Who Will Teach Adults About Digital Literacy?

The Huffington Post by Cathy Burrell 30 September 2016

“October 1st is the International Day of the Older Person and National Senior’s Day, a day set aside in the year to acknowledge the contributions of seniors worldwide.”

Digital Literacy for Adults: Who will teach them?

One of the biggest challenges I see as an adult educator who teaches social media is the language of technology. Older adults are not a homogenous group. I am not like every other 53 year old woman who lives in Calgary. For the most part, older adults have been left out of the technology conversation. Many of the adults I teach view technology as: exclusively used by the young, complicated, or as something completely nonsensical.

Nearly 6 million Canadians are over the age of 65, and about 120,000 Calgarians.Where are these people supposed to learn what they need to know?

Digital literacy is an essential skill older adults need to possess to maintain their independence, and participate as equal citizens in society as they age. This includes access to affordable Internet services. Anthony Marx wrote in the New York Timesrecently that “Access to broadband is necessary to be a productive member of society.”

As a society, we value literacy, send our children to school, and do all we can as parents and teachers to help them learn to read, write, and add. But what about digital literacy? It’s certainly convenient if the older adults in our lives are digitally literate enough to send a text, or an e-mail, or log onto their Facebook account. However, to suggest that an older adult who has never used a computer will one day become ‘a computer geek’ is ridiculous and unrealistic.

Have you ever asked a friend to attend a gallery opening? This friend, may have never been to a gallery or understand what an ‘opening’ is. Imagine how a digitally illiterate older adult feels when a friend recommends a great new website. Or when a son or daughter suggests they ‘get on Facebook’? The words make no sense because there is no context.

Older adults deserve access to educators who understand the wealth of experience that age brings to the teaching-learning transaction, not a warm body such as a well-meaning but inexperienced teenage volunteer from the local high school.

Technically, none of us ‘learned’ the Internet. Folklore has it, the Internet escaped from a US Department of Defence computer. Like a rampaging elephant from a zoo. We have all struggled, to locate privacy settings or understand an error message. Technology is a tool. Is it useful? Many older adults want to know ‘why’ before ‘how.’

Remember when your parents scrimped and saved to buy you 17 volumes of the 1973 World Book Encyclopedia? Well it’s your turn to return the favour. Look through a local Continuing Education catalogue. Contact a nearby seniors centre. If they don’t have a workshop that suits the older adult in your life, tell them what you are interested in and why. Knowing how to get information from or communicate with a digital device is something that many of us take for granted. Digital Literacy is an essential part of lifelong learning. At any age.

Cathy Burrell is a Grad Student at the University of Calgary in the MEd program specializing in Adult, Community and Higher Education. Cathy began teaching people 50+ what Social Media is, and how to use it to communicate, and has taught more than 50 workshops in White Rock and Vancouver, BC, and in Calgary, Alberta.