Breaking Digital Barriers: Digital Literacy for the Elderly
Charles Wallace received a B.A. in Linguistics in 1989 from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in Linguistics in 1992 from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science & Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1999. He also worked as a software developer in California for several years, and as an intern at Schlumberger, the Kestrel Institute, and Microsoft Research. In 2010, he was a Fulbright Scholar sponsored by the Universidad Catolica in Santiago, Chile.
His research focuses on how humans can better understand the software they build and use: for instance. He is particularly interested in the use of "lightweight" formal methods, harnessing the analytical power of computers to identify dark corners and hidden assumptions in software problems. He is also working on techniques to promote effective communication in software development.
Current projects include: development of mobile phone apps to facilitate participation of "citizen scientists" in environmental research, and a combined research/outreach program that trains local elderly residents in computer use and generates data on the obstacles encountered by these users.
Why This Project Is Important
The movement toward digital technology has much to offer the elderly: a wealth of news and health information and the ability to stay in touch with distant friends and family, to name a few. But as digital literacy moves from an attractive option to a necessity, many seniors on fixed incomes and with little access to current technology are experiencing frustration and helplessness. Our outreach activities aim to ease seniors into the digital world—and to build a tighter-knit community.
The Breaking Digital Barriers (BDB) project started in 2011 as a local outreach project. Since its inception, demand has grown—necessitating a doubling in the number of sessions being offered. Students from Michigan Technological University's computer science and humanities departments volunteer to assist participants with the basics of digital literacy, as well as more advanced topics. Sitting in on one of these sessions for even a few minutes is an eye-opening introduction to the obstacles that seniors face as they attempt to embrace digital technology. The visual, motor, and cognitive challenges of the standard keyboard-mouse-monitor computer interface are daunting for those with impaired physical function and limited digital experience. As BDB continues to expand, students are using their interaction at the library sessions to design improved means of digital adoption and use for seniors, and will ultimately use the knowledge they gain for research projects. Tablet computers, such as iPads and Android tablets, offer participants many advantages:
- Touch-screen technology eliminates the mouse—a formidable obstacle for seniors.
- Portability avoids problems of positioning screens or other hardware.
- Reasonable prices provide seniors on a limited income an affordable digital option.
- A suite of tablet computers for use by library patrons will help local seniors make steps toward digital literacy, and will allow us to explore ways to best serve the digital needs of this age group.
In the second phase of this project, the tablets will serve as the center of a six-week summer learning program for seniors. Participants will spend up to ten hours per week learning everyday uses of the tablets—like email, web searches, and financial tools—as well as learning new ways to socialize online. The program will culminate with a creative activity, in which assistants will partner with seniors to produce an interactive digital story. By practicing tablet use in more frequent sessions and producing a project, seniors will leave "Tablet Camp" with the competence, confidence, and curiosity that will support their development of digital literacy in the future.
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What Your Donation Can Help Us Do:
- Provide tablet computers for weekly senior digital literacy sessions
- Establish weekly help sessions for seniors
- Start a summer "Tablet Camp"
$1+ 30 Funders
Receipt acknowledging tax-deductible status of your donation.
$100+ 15 Funders
The above, plus a T-shirt and name included on plaque at Portage Lake District Library (in Houghton, Mich.).
$250+ 5 Funders
All of the above, plus original pottery from Breaking Digital Barriers (BDB) team member.
$500+ 2 Funders
All of the above, plus a signed photograph of BDB team and seniors at library.
$1,000+ 0 Funders
All of the above, plus original painting from BDB team member.