When I talk to seniors — folks who are 65 or older — about the Internet, I get a mix of reactions. Some of them regularly rely on email, video chats and the web to stay in touch with family and find information. But most seniors I meet have rarely, if ever, used computers or the Internet before.
So last year, when several local companies created the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund, the first-ever pool of money available here for nonprofits who want to close the digital divide, it gave me an idea. Of the people in Kansas City that don’t use the Internet at all, 44% are seniors — there’s a real need there. And on the other hand, 93% of teens use the Internet regularly — which presents a real opportunity. What if we could close a technological and generational gap at the same time?
I pitched the idea of a cross-generational digital literacy training program to the colleagues and students I work with at my nonprofit, Arts Tech. My colleagues were excited by the idea; after all, it fits right in with our mission to help urban teens develop technical skills. But I was really blown away by the excitement and enthusiasm our teens showed. Dozens of them said they’d want to participate in a program like this.
So we applied for, and received, a Digital Inclusion Fund grant — and today, 19 students from Hogan Academy are training to become intergenerational digital literacy experts. After students graduate from this program, they’ll be paired up with local seniors, to help them learn about the web in 1:1 or group training sessions.
This isn’t a walk in the park for these teens; we’ve pulled together a pretty rigorous 60-hour training program. Instead of sleeping in on Saturday mornings, students join us to learn about computer hardware, in-home networking, the Internet and computer software. They’re also learning how to work with seniors, and how to develop their very own digital literacy curriculum (like planning classes on how to create email addresses, and how to use social networks to connect with friends) that they’ll be able to teach by the end of the program.
My ultimate hope for this project is that its spirit of intergenerational learning spreads beyond our lab of laptops. Already, I’ve seen students, seniors and local partners pitch in to make this program happen. We all have a role to play, and working together I really believe that we can build a more digitally-inclusive community in which students, seniors and more are available to continually learn from each other.