Archive for the ‘training tips’ Category.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #9

My dad’s advice: It’s hell getting old. Don’t do it.

Two very significant things are happening this century. First, Americans are living longer than any previous generation, so we are all discovering, directly or indirectly, the handicaps that come with old age. Second, computer technology has become truly mainstream, catching a whole generation off guard. Consequently, computer illiteracy has become one of those old age handicaps, and it is acutely felt by those who are otherwise functioning extremely well in society.

The older generation sees their grandchildren interacting with all kinds of computers with ease, yet they have difficulty just getting their heads around some of the most basic concepts like menus and scrollbars. I haven’t kept track of how many older adults I have talked to about computers, but I’m sure if I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase “I feel so stupid” I’d be as rich as Bill Gates.

I repeatedly tell members of the older generation they are not stupid, they are inexperienced. They wouldn’t think of themselves as being stupid because they can’t play a piccolo or speak Swahili. Neither should they feel stupid because they can’t use a computer…yet. Did they learn to read in a day or a week? How long were they taught penmanship? ( “Oh! Years!”) And that was when they were young, like their grandchildren.

Learning to use a computer is doable, no matter how complicated it looks to them. But a big factor in their success is their attitude. In addition to making it easier for them to learn, it is important to counteract the self image they come in with by reminding them that they are learning, that it is not as hard as they imagined, and that they can do it. It is a wonderful thing to see their faces brighten as they realize they have learned something, and therefore are not stupid after all. As their attitude and self image changes, barriers start coming down and they pick up more determination.

Tip #9: Encourage them. Not just with positive reinforcement, but with active encouragement that reminds them what they have accomplished.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #8

Nearly everyone who takes computer classes at our library does not want a book about how to use a computer. The typical response is, “I can’t learn by reading a book. I have to be shown how to do it.” There are many different learning styles. Some learn by watching. Some learn by listening. Some learn by taking notes. Some learn by doing and re-doing. All of us learn from mistakes.

Older adults, although they are more careful, in order to avoid making mistakes (one of the reasons they go more slowly), and despite their best efforts, will make mistakes while learning to use the computer. To those of us who grew up with computers or live with computers now, the mistakes can seem pretty incredible. More importantly, those newbie mistakes are usually easy to fix, so the typical response is to just fix it for them with one or two mouse clicks.

With very few exceptions, however, it is better to allow them to fix their mistakes by telling them what happened, why it happened, and walking them through, step by step, how to fix it. Although it takes longer, if they made the mistake once, they will probably do it again, so learning how to fix it themselves is important. It also helps take the mystery out of computers and raises their confidence level. Sometimes we even help them make a mistake, if it’s a common one, just to teach them how to fix it. For example, sooner or later they are all going to click the right mouse button and get a popup context menu. So, when training novices, we tell them to click the right mouse button, then explain what they are seeing and why, and how to close the popup menu.

Tip #8: Mistakes are learning opportunities. Teach them how to fix their mistakes.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #7

The older we get, the more we know. But sometimes that gets in the way of learning (see Tip #5). The process of learning, of itself, becomes more difficult due to factors in aging. Learning new concepts for familiar terms inserts a certain level of confusion into the process, enhanced by the declining ability to exclude the prior associations with those terms in order to learn the new associations. Frequently combined with this is a decline in hearing, caused by both physical and cognitive factors. The physical factor is the declining ability to hear sounds. The cognitive factor is the declining ability to distinguish sounds, caused by cognitive slowing and by neural noise (random signals that are unrelated to actual stimulus). This means what is actually getting through (what can be heard) is getting lost in distractions of prior associations and unrelated associations as the person attempts to “decode” it and make sense of it, causing increased difficulty in understanding what is being said. When this happens in the context of learning new terms and concepts, the ability to hear and understand becomes even more strained.

Rapid speech is obviously not going to work well with this group in a setting where they are learning something new. But slowing down the speed will not completely solve the problem. It is just as important to be very precise and explicit, and to enunciate clearly. Keep in mind many consonant sounds are similar. To older adults with hearing problems, words like com and con sound the same, and they may not have learned enough about the Internet to put “com” into context.

Because of the declines in hearing, context becomes even more important to older adults’ ability to decipher and understand speech. Precise and explicit speech will help keep them on track and in the correct context. For example, spelling out what is to be typed is a good idea, and to be more precise you could use phonetic alphabet words (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc.) to indicate the specific letters. But unless you explicitly say, for example, “type the letters C as in Charlie, O as in Oscar, M as in Mike…” some will just start typing the words you say.

Tip #7: To lessen the effects of hearing loss and related issues of aging, speak slowly, using language that is precise and explicit.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #6

The cognitive slowing that occurs with aging affects an older adult’s ability to maintain linear connections required for learning. Most teaching involves steps, but the older adult’s ability to remember those steps is affected by the aging process (see Tip #2). What may seem obvious for younger learners can no longer be taken for granted. They will not necessarily make the connection between a cause and effect without explicit instructions broken down into discrete steps. An instruction to “click on ‘New’ in the File menu” may be easy for a younger learner, but what the older adult hears is “file” and “new” and tries to figure out what is where. They need an instruction like the example above broken down into discrete steps, such as: “Move the cursor to the upper left corner and click on the word ‘File’. Move the cursor over the word ‘New’ in the list that opens. When the word is highlighted, press the left mouse button.”

Consistently using specific step by step instructions begins to take the mystery out of computers for older adults. It also reduces the load on their processing, which is already taxed.

Also, since repetition is important (see Tip #4), handouts or other materials intended to give them practice should use discrete, numbered steps. Numbering is important as a way of isolating each step. For example, instructions to copy and paste might be broken down into four distinct steps: highlighting something, copying it, moving to the destination, and pasting. Each step should then have detailed instructions. Using the example to copy and paste, printed instructions for steps one and two might look something like this (but would, of course, include relevant visual cues):

Step 1 (highlighting):

Place the cursor on the item to be copied

Hold down the left mouse button and drag the cursor across the item

When the item is highlighted, release the mouse button.

Step 2 (copying)

Move the cursor to the top of the window

Click on the word “Edit”

Move the cursor over the word “Copy” in the list that opens

When the word “Copy” is highlighted, press the left mouse button

Tip #6: Use discrete, step-by-step instructions, both verbally, and in printed materials

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #5

The extensive crystallized intelligence available to older adults, which is not only stable, but continues to grow, does have a drawback. Although building on existing knowledge and skills is a good thing (see Tip #3), it is actually easier for an older adult to learn an entirely new term and concept than it is to learn a concept associated with a word that already has a familiar meaning. This is because the attentional processes, which involve controlling the attentional focus and excluding irrelevant information, decline with age. Learning to use computers requires learning new concepts and associations for familiar words, such as “shortcut” and “button.” But declines in attentional processes make it more difficult to exclude prior associations with familiar terms and replace them with the new associations.

Imagine going to a reunion after many years. People’s appearances have changed, and you must make new associations to continue to recognize them. But imagine finding everyone’s names have also changed. You can recognize them, but to learn the new names you must first suppress the tendency to associate the faces with the old names. The more familiar the name and face, the more difficult that is to do. As we get older it becomes even more difficult to exclude the prior associations when learning new concepts.

This can be made easier with visual cues. Consider the difference nametags would make at that imaginary reunion where everyone’s names have changed. Cues, such as “cheatsheets” and labeled graphics, when combined with repetition (see Tip #4), greatly enhance retention.

Tip #5: Give them visual cues

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #4

I should probably pause here to point out that there is wide variation among older adults’ abilities, skills and experiences. Because aging is such a highly individualized process, the older a population group, the greater the differences will be among the group’s individuals. This means it is virtually impossible to predict how easy or difficult new technology will be for anyone based solely on age. For some, physical and cognitive declines begin as early as the thirties. For others, the changes are not noticeable until well into their sixth decade. Still, there are some generalizations which can be made, especially when it comes to learning, and especially since the group we’re talking about here is over sixty (most seem to use 65 as the cut-off for “older adult”).

One of those generalizations is the need for repetition in the learning process. With cognitive slowing, repetition seems to be the adaptive technique adopted by everyone. Even when they understand a concept or task, older adults will ask to be guided through the steps again, and again. Even when they have mastered a procedural skill requiring only a few steps, they need to return to the task and repeat it periodically to retain it. The more they repeat the new skill, the more likely it will “stick,” becoming part of their “crystallized” intelligence.

So here is Tip #4: Be repetitive.

Be very repetitive. Come back to a learned skill frequently, even while building on that skill and knowledge. Don’t just give them opportunities to practice a new skill, encourage it. Emphasize the necessity of practicing the new skill. Require practice, if possible. I have found older adults will forget what they have “mastered” within two days when they do not practice the new skill. I sometimes compare learning to use computers to learning another language: the more they use it, the easier it gets, and conversely, the less it is used, the harder it is to remember.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #3

One of the advantages of teaching technology to older adults is the richer background they invariably have. That background is part of what has been called “crystallized intelligence,” which is stable and “lossless” under normal circumstances. The knowledge and skill remains even after they have stopped using it. This is a very important advantage that is often overlooked. I once had a 91 year old woman in my classes who had been a typist 70 years earlier. She struggled to hunt and peck on the keyboard. Finally, she carefully placed her fingers on the keyboard, closed her eyes, and typed perfectly.

A major task for the trainer is to identify existing knowledge or skills, to make the process of learning technology easier. Even if they do not have experience on a computer, their history is part of the history from which current technology developed. Instant messaging is just a new way of sending telegraphs. A camera’s memory card is just a new type of film: it has to be inserted into the camera to get pictures, and must be carefully removed to prevent losing the pictures. By making a connection between the new and the known, the skill (or concept) becomes an extension of what is already familiar.

Building on existing knowledge and experience reduces the processing overhead, part of what is called “fluid intelligence,” which is the hardest hit in the aging process. Whether it be remembering how to type, or making a conceptual connection, any time learning can piggyback on stable, “crystallized intelligence,” there is less burden on working memory and the process of creating more crystallized intelligence. This is a good thing.

Tip #3: Build on what they already know.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #2

As processing becomes slower and memory acquisition becomes more limited, older adults begin making adjustments to compensate. They begin to draw more on their strengths (semantic and global memory) to compensate for the greater difficulty in learning new material. This is why analogies work well (see Tip #1). To put it in computer terms, learning requires blocks of short term memory for the process of laying down a block of long term memory. If that process can utilize links to existing long term memory, the demands on short term memory are lessened, and the new block of long term memory has links to something that’s already stable, increasing the likelihood it will successfully map. On the other hand, without links to existing long term memory, the process becomes more resource-intensive in areas that are losing efficiency (short term memory).

As we age, processing speed slows so that the blocks of short term memory fail by the time they are needed at the end of processing. For example, in a four part process where step one must be remembered for step four while executing steps two and three, step one, utilizing a block of short term memory, typically gets lost during the intermediate steps so that step four cannot be completed.

One of the ways older adults deal with the increased difficulty in learning is to limit what they try to learn. They are motivated by how important a thing is to them personally to learn it, and they will learn only what they need to know for that item. For example, keeping in touch is important, whether it is with a spouse, children, grandchildren, friends, or doctors’ offices, so that cell phones no longer seem to be a convenience, but a requirement, even to the older generation. But all the bells and whistles available, even on the cheapest phones, are just that to the older generation: non-essential items which have a high learning cost. They will learn how to turn the phone on or off, how to keep it charged, how to make a call, how to answer a call, and how to “hang up.” Those are pretty straightforward tasks, using visible buttons on the phone. Learning to navigate through menus on the phone’s screen comes at a higher cost. For most, the additional features don’t add to their core requirement, which is to simply use the phone to make and receive calls anywhere they go, so there is not much incentive to attempt to learn how to use those features. How many older adults do you know who have a cell phone? How many of them can use the phone to take a picture and send it to someone? How many even want to?

Tip #2: Teach them only what they need to know to do what they want to do.

Connecting the disconnected

One of the things I do is teach technology to older people, especially those for whom it is still something new. These are typically people who have a very rich background which doesn’t happen to include computers. The basics of cell phones are fairly easy for them to grasp because they have used telephones to communicate for quite a long time, and their experience typically includes wireless home phones. So the “leap” to cell phones is really not that great, although there is a steep learning curve beyond simply answering the phone and ending a call. Not so with computers.

Computers have practically landed in their laps over the last couple years, full grown and ready to be their means of integration with the rest of the world today. Many have dodged the bullet, so to speak, by having a secretary or other, younger, worker interact with computers for them. But then they retire, and there is no one to do it for them any more.

There are also many who had embraced computers early on, and followed along with their development. But the changes are harder for them to manage now. Learning is not as easy. They tend to want to freeze time where they are comfortable, or at least slow the pace of change so they do not feel left behind.

Technology today represents a difficult place for the older adult. The constant changes require continual, rapid learning while traditional learning paths are becoming more difficult for them. And here’s the kicker: the assumption today that everyone has access to a computer and can use it. Product instructions assume prior knowledge of or familiarity with computers. Computer courses assume participants have at least some familiarity with computers, with a pace set for a much younger generation.

I see the ones who have fallen through the cracks, and it is not a happy picture. These are people with a very rich background. This is the World War II generation through the sixties. Yet their experience and competence pales for them compared with what they see “kids” capable of doing today. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard one of them say “I’m so stupid,” I could retire.

My main job (the one I actually get paid for) is finding ways to make learning to use computers and technology easier for older adults. So here are some tips for the rest of you out there trying to connect with the older generation:

Tip #1: Analogize. Tell a story. Make a comparison they can relate to. Accuracy is not as important as relevance. Here’s a handy example:

There was a discussion among a group of seniors of varying levels of computer experience about the difference between a hardware firewall and a software firewall. The easiest explanation I could give, and one which they all instantly understood: “You have a house, and you do not leave the door open so that people driving by can see inside (and decide whether to drop in and help themselves). In fact, most of you live in a gated community [this is Florida; everyone here understands the concept of gated communities]. A hardware firewall is like a gated community, keeping out unauthorized people. A software firewall goes a step further. It’s like having a high hedge around your house so if someone actually gets through the gate, they can’t even tell your house is there, much less see what’s inside.”

More tips to come…