Bridging the generation gap by bridging the digital divide.

We have been doing international internet projects with students and teachers for more than twenty years; I have written about them many times. For our new topic, I would like to share our ongoing positive domestic project. Several years ago a few well-equipped schools, the local education authorities and parent-teacher associations suggested an innovative usage of the numerous internet classes. What if we could work at bridging the generation gap by bridging the digital divide? In other words, we thought it was quite possible to bridge the digital divide which still exists among various generations. It took a lot of discussions; teaching plans were composed, schedules established; agreements were reached between teachers and parents. The idea was explained to teenagers, students at the city schools who were confident enough that they could use the required skills well. Since it was an extra-curricular activity it was clearly stipulated that only those students who had good grades and whose parents gave their agreement would participate. Last but not least, there were two conditions: one, a teacher was to be present at every school session; two, it was all to be done on a strictly voluntary basis.

A presentation was made either by the school or by the local educational administration at every participating school. High school students listened carefully to the project idea. A group of senior citizens over the age of 65 who wanted to learn how to use a computer and the internet but who had no facilities at home and could not attend regular classes were willing to come to a neighborhood school after hours and to have a session there twice a week. Each senior was to be assigned a young tutor; a teacher-coordinator was to be on hand during the whole academic hour (45 minutes). Thus we got the first group of learners aged from 68 to 82, four men and four women. And we had an eager, slightly apprehensive bunch of teenagers ready to share their superior knowledge! Our whole course was planned for the months of September and October, largely due to our climate. Winter in Siberia comes at the end of October and stays until mid-April or even May. The very first lesson showed that the lesson plans had to be modified time wise. We allotted three times as many minutes per every small task as we gave the children. In fact, the first session turned out to be solely devoted to the explanations and demonstrations of how to turn on and turn off the computer, and how many times to click on different icons. Add to it the familiar “wrong button syndrome”, with this or that elderly person exclaiming in a panic, “Oh, I think I clicked the wrong button, what shall I do?!” But all in all it was a huge success.

Young tutors strutted around showing their skills and simply showing off. They demonstrated amazing patience and kindness. The much older learners had a blast, talking excitedly after the lesson. They went back home in a group; since some of them were widowed or separated, this proved to be a great opportunity for them to get out of the house, to meet new people. Everybody dressed up; the women applied make up. After those two months they could all confidently use the computer and the internet, though naturally they did not utilize many of the functions. Basically what they wanted was to learn how to send emails, to use Skype, and to find some information or read the news. There was a very nice continuation to the project later. I met some of the young tutors who told me happily that they continued their teaching. While the older men and women mostly stayed home, teens did not mind running around in the snow and ice, with the temperatures falling down to -30C. A young man formulated it wonderfully. “Of course I continue to visit “my” Grandmother! She is not my relative but she is somebody’s grandma, it’s just that her own family is far away or working long hours. When I come to her after school she always has tea and pies for me; we talk, she listens, and she has lots of interesting stories to share. Then we use her computer, I help her check emails, remind her how to use Skype when she wants to talk to her family and friends.”

The new groups come to school in May. There is a rotation of young tutors. After the first run more and more teens became interested in participating. When they learned that good grades were a requirement, they actually worked hard at their own studies, so this proved to be a good motivating factor. My own oldest students are now 87 and 91. We regularly use Skype to exchange some news and to touch base in winter when they cannot go out. They know how to open up their email, where to click to see a full-screen photo, how to attach files if needed. True, they tend to forget a few things, like turn on the camera or turn down the sound. But their joy at being able to connect is contagious.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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