Computer and internet skills are becoming ever more important as agencies and businesses move information and services online. Older adults are increasingly likely to use the internet to access information about health and community resources, and to join social networking websites. Despite this growing number of older adult internet users, there is a “digital divide” between those with computer skills (who are typically more affluent and better educated than average) and those without. To bridge this divide, researchers and practitioners are working to develop effective internet training programs for older adult computer novices.
While a handful of studies have demonstrated short-term benefits from internet training programs in community samples, it is still unclear whether such programs provide lasting benefits and are useful across the diverse national population of older adults. A forthcoming article in The Gerontologist reports on a study that advances the evidence base for such interventions. The study is an assessment of a course that was provided to a diverse, multi-site sample, and includes a three month follow-up on the computer use of participants to assess the usefulness of the course.
The researchers drew from existing research to tailor the course to a population of older adults inexperienced with computer use. The course was designed to prevent anxiety, involve peer interaction, and minimize the use of technical jargon. The training courses, which lasted six weeks, were provided in community centers serving low- and middle-income older adults in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Miami. The courses included guided training on basic computer skills and internet-specific skills, and were led by trained community volunteers. Overall, 196 participants took part in the study, and were divided into two groups for comparison: the training group with 104 participants and a wait-list control group of 92 individuals.
Before the training program, participants completed surveys on computer use and the Computer Attitude Questionnaire, which assesses confidence and familiarity with computer skills. Participants also took tests on computer knowledge and internet knowledge. Immediately after the six weeks, the knowledge tests and Computer Attitude Questionnaire were administered to measure any improvement. Three months after the course, participants were again given the Computer Attitude Questionnaire and asked about their computer use since the course.
Participants in the training showed significant improvement in computer knowledge and internet knowledge after the course. The three month post-training follow up showed that course participants used the internet significantly more frequently after taking the course, suggesting that such courses are not only effective but beneficial for participants. The study also provided information on which skills and topics were difficult for participants, which may be useful for educators. On the computer and internet knowledge tests, forty percent of participants made errors on the meaning of common computer icons, and almost half were unable to define many common internet terms.