A middle school in the Midwest state of Michigan is using computers to link 8th-graders with local seniors. But they're not meeting on-line. They’re in class, and the students are helping the seniors learn basic computer skills.
In Carole Colburn's technology literacy class in Howell, Michigan, six local seniors join a couple dozen teens in front of the school's computers. They're all learning the basics: Microsoft Word, Internet searches, e-mail. But the seniors are each assigned a student mentor to guide them through the lessons.
Right now, they're looking up the weather forecast for Howell through the cable-TV channel's Web site. Colburn tells the class "Where it says 'Enter U.S. city or zip,' all you have to do is enter 4-8-8-4-3. Then click 'go.' " The next step is learning how to store that site on their computer browser's favorites list so they can return to it quickly.
Mary Peckens reads from her computer screen, "Add to favorites.... Will add this page to your 'favorites' list.... Okay." Her mentor, student Michael Hayes, points to an icon. "Click on that little star, ‘Your Favorites.’ It will come up with this little list of your favorites. See? There's the local forecast for Howell." "It's in there. It's done!" Peckens says happily.
Teacher Carole Colburn says most of the students already know their way around a computer, so she wants to make sure the seniors - who might not use computers very often - really learn something here. "The tough part is for [the 8th graders] to not put their hands on the mouse, or not touch the keyboard. To let the student, in this case, the senior, let them have their hand on the mouse,” she explains. “What happens is, if the kid does it, the learning doesn't take place. You have to do it yourself."
The seniors are here because of a project Colburn does with her classes each quarter. This one is called Student Knowledge Inspiring Lifelong Learning, or Project SKILL. Colburn wants each project to comprise several things: learning how to use technology, making a connection to the local community through some sort of service, and collaborating with a local organization. In previous quarters, her 8th-graders have learned about Habitat for Humanity, and raised money for the American Red Cross. This quarter, they're learning about issues facing senior citizens. It's a subject close to the teacher's heart.
"I have a mother who is 84 years old,” she says. “She lives alone in Ohio. I know the struggles that she faces, the challenges that she has every day. I thought, 'I want them to know about senior citizens. I want them to know the challenges that seniors face, what are the programs that help senior citizens.'"
Students are using various types of technology - computers, scanners, digital cameras - to create projects on issues affecting seniors, from social services like the Meals on Wheels food delivery program, to health concerns like Alzheimer's disease. The seniors learned about the free computer training through a local seniors' organization or through their churches.
Today, Colburn is showing the class how to find information on the Internet, starting with a search for their own names. Mary Peckens finds herself listed on a notice about a high school class reunion. "I found me,” she tells Colburn, “but the only thing it mentioned was that I was secretary of our class reunion." "Well, that's how you're out there," the teacher responds.
Pat Perosak has been 'out there' before. She uses computers from time to time, but says that working in this class with the middle school students helps her learn how to navigate the Web more quickly. "One lady [in class] talked about genealogy and I think that is a good spot to start with. And, just general knowledge would be helpful. I can go to that Google and get all kinds of stuff."
Perosak and the other seniors surfing the Web today are a minority among their cohorts. A study earlier this year by the Pew Research Center found only about 1/3 of Americans over the age of 65 use the Internet. For those aged 18 to 29, it's 89%.
There's a lot being done to change those numbers. For example, a group called Senior Net - an organization of older Americans who use computers - offers instruction at more than 200 locations across the United States. It also operates a Web site.
Those who want more seniors on-line say it can give them a better quality of life. E-mail can help them stay in touch with children and grandchildren who live far away. They can easily find information about health matters, and prescription drugs on the Internet. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy group, found that a third of those who did, later talked to their doctors about what they found. A survey done last year by the organization also found that one-in-five seniors changed their behavior because of health information they've found on-line. The Kaiser Foundation's director has called for a national discussion of how to get even more seniors on-line.