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one-stop digital literacy class for older adults: “it’s about respect for your elders”

June 23, 2023

As resident volunteer Abdullah Abdul-Rahim surveyed the scene at a recent gathering at Springfield’s Bay Area Neighborhood Council—where a dozen participants buzzed around a dozen open Chromebooks—he nodded toward the woman nearest him.

“This here is my Auntie Annie,” Abdul-Rahim said quietly, above the lively din. “They are all my aunties, these are my elders. It’s about respect for your elders.”

Respect—for each other, for varied relationships with technology, for a shared desire to learn—was at the heart of Way Finders’ Digital Literacy Class for older adults, which kicked off in May 2023. The effort builds on our Flexing Civic Muscle program, funded since 2019 by Point32Health Foundation, which focuses on building digital literacy and advancing digital equity among older adults in Springfield.

“I learned the computer is our friend,” said Debbie Collins, 64. “They made us feel very comfortable, now I can breathe, I lost that fear. I used to think, ‘If I touch this, will this go away? I don’t know, is someone watching me?’” 

Over four weeks, the class learned to send email, navigate the internet, create passwords, make video calls, and create, share, and save documents. It culminated with a graduation ceremony, where participants received a free Chromebook, case, headphones, and mouse—plus a year of free internet service! 

“I wanted to learn to make fliers for my church,” said Williemae Palmer, age 71, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service as a power equipment operator. “The whole class was phenomenal. There were things I didn’t know, and things I thought I knew but I was doing wrong. The most important thing I learned was finding out which websites could be trusted, I didn’t realize that ‘s’ meant something. I’d been afraid of paying bills online, but I actually paid one last night, my water bill!”

Palmer, using Google Slides, created a church bulletin as part of the class’s required independent project. As to other items on her digital to-do list? “I’m still exploring! I just downloaded Canva. I don’t type, but now I have an app to practice. I don’t do Facebook, but I’m going to, now. One of my main reasons for coming was for the year of free internet access. There were a lot of perks with this class!”

Funded by a grant from LISC Boston and offered in partnership with Boston-based Tech Goes Home—which has provided digital literacy training and tools to more than 20,000 people since 2018—the pilot class was Tech Goes Home’s first effort to reach people in Western Massachusetts. Such collaboration helps address digital exclusion as a critical issue of social justice, and builds off the trust and networks established over time by Way Finders’ Community Building and Engagement team

“The Point32Health Foundation grant and our work with the Alliance for Digital Equity allowed us to build a foundation for our work with older adults,” said Community Engagement Director Beatrice Dewberry. “It’s really exciting that we’ve been able to expand our network of support.”

“I think it went great! We focused on communication and basic computer literacy skills,” said Community Engagement Associate Emily Thibault, who led the eight-part class. “At first, I didn’t realize the extent of some participants’ fear. Like, ‘Deep breath, you can click this, we can play.’ Just working with them to build confidence, I think that had the biggest impact. It was awesome to see that growth, going from, ‘I don’t know what the space bar does’ to ‘I can do all this with my Chromebook!’”

Attendance at a June makeup class was remarkably high. Many came not because they had to—15 training hours were required to receive the freebies—but because they wanted to. To see classmates and teachers, to laugh with one another, to share lunch together, to talk about plans for Juneteenth. And, above all, to love on Thibault.

“Miss Emily was so patient. She never made us feel small, even if you made a mistake or didn’t get it right away. That encouragement is so important. Because the world is constantly changing, it’s good to be able to adapt,” said Annie Edge-Battle, a retired lieutenant with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office. “Miss Emily’s special, she’s given so much to our group.”

Thibault, who joined Way Finders in 2019 as a member of AmeriCorps VISTA, needed to do very little to recruit: She simply pitched the class, which was limited to 15 seats, during an exercise class for older adults. The response from this group was overwhelming—especially when AmeriCorps VISTA members Nydia Hernandez and Sheryl Maldonado, who assisted in teaching the Digital Literacy Class, walked by pulling a Chromebook-laden wagon.

“The exercise instructor was like, ‘Hey, eyes up here! Don’t act like a million bucks just walked by,’” said Thibault.

The desire among older adults for such a program—deemed “lifesaving” and “amazing”—is great, according to Dewberry. “One participant was teary-eyed the first class. They were all very emotional about the opportunity to have one-stop access to training, a device and Wi-Fi. They felt like, ‘We need this, but we don’t know where to get it.’ The digital world wasn’t their world, but they want it to be.”

While most participants have a smartphone, they use it more like a landline, to answer calls. Some might do a little Facebook. But overall, participants are not using their smartphones as a computer device or to improve quality of life. And that piece—quality of life—is the big picture goal of the class. 

“This group is not job hunting,” said Dewberry. “It’s really for older adults to be able to access things like telehealth. To be able to engage in civic life, to go the city website and find out when trash day is or complete a survey. To be able to access all the resources that those of us who are digitally savvy take for granted. Just basic quality of life things that they’ve been relying on someone else to do for them.” 

Tapping relatives for tech help and troubleshooting, as many of us know, has its drawbacks. 

“When I have questions about my phone, I’ll ask my daughters and granddaughters,” said Edge-Battle, who for her independent project created a recipe card for her family’s sweet potato pie, which she brought in for the class to enjoy. “They’ll take my phone from me for a few minutes, then give it back. But they don’t show me how to do it. And I need to do it on my own to learn.”   

“I used to call my sister for everything, like placing online orders, and she’d walk me through it,” said Palmer. “But I’ve actually told her that I no longer needed her services! She said she should move to Springfield, there’s so much happening, it’s a great place for older adults.”

Members of the class proudly describe themselves as “teachable.” But it helps when that teacher is patient and kind and doesn’t make you feel rushed or overwhelmed—and gives you a binder with step-by-step instructions on everything covered in class. And modifies the curriculum on demand (as Thibault did, to add QR codes and Google Meet). AND offers extra help outside of class (as Hernandez and Maldonado did, via weekly Tech a Break office hours).

“I was impressed by how far the class came in such a short time,” said Thibault. “It was cool, by the end of the class, people who were catching on fast were reaching out to people next to them, if they were struggling a little bit. To see that community building sense in the room was powerful. And it helped build confidence. Like, ‘If I can do this and help someone else do it, the sky’s the limit!’”