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Cyber Cafe bridges cultures, technology

June 20, 2008
by Martha Spinks, PhD, MSW
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In 2002, when a young graduate student asked seniors at St. Barnabas Senior Services in Los Angeles if they would like to learn to use computers, she found no takers. The executive director told her to regroup and consider adult learning theory.

The prevailing idea about adult learning is that adults will learn what is immediately relevant to them and/or helps them solve problems.1

At St. Barnabas Senior Services (SBSS), making computers immediately relevant to its clients poses some special challenges. SBBS serves Chinatown, Koreatown, Filipinotown, and a very large Hispanic community in central Los Angeles—the most densely populated, ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood in the city. SBSS’ clients roughly match the demographic profile of its 15-square-mile service area, at 37% Chinese, 23% Korean, 20% Hispanic, 15% Caucasian, and 5% African American. Typically, SBSS clients are immigrants in their mid-70s with a high school education or less, limited English skills, living alone, and depending on Social Security of $700 to $800 monthly, with few relatives or friends to provide assistance. What could be found in a computer that would be immediately relevant to one, much less a significant portion of this group? The answer lay in the demographic profile—immigrants in their 70s with limited English, and in observing their rituals. This is a generation of newspaper readers, accustomed to reading the news every day in their own language. They are dependent on news in their own language to understand what is going on around them or in their former homes.

Editor’s note: The Cyber Café at St. Barnabas Senior Services in Los Angeles, has won the 2008 American Society on Aging MetLife Foundation MindAlert Award. The MindAlert Award is a national project designed to recognize outstanding programs developed to improve mental stimulation and creative outlets later in life. The award is given to organizations that have demonstrated high-quality, innovative programs, based on scientific evidence and that the programs offered by these organizations enhance functioning and quality of life or prevent functional decline in older adults.

Different question
So the student asked the seniors a different question: “Would you like to read today’s newspaper from your hometown—free of charge?” The response was surprise, curiosity, and invariably, “yes!” When the answer was “yes!” the student led the senior to a computer that was hooked up to digital subscriber line (DSL) and programmed in several languages. She sat the senior in front of the screen, located a newspaper in his language from his hometown or region, adjusted the size of the image to be sure the senior could see it clearly, and showed the senior how to use the page up and page down buttons. Then she stepped back and just waited in the background in case the senior had questions or problems. Soon, the five computers SBSS installed had a row of newspaper readers for several hours each day. And soon, the newspaper readers started asking what else a computer could do. The student showed them games, music, videos, e-mail, and Web sites that translated, and much more. Then she asked the seniors what they would like to do.

Honoring another principle of adult learning, she put them in charge of their own learning, and her introduction to computer use had given the seniors enough information to form an opinion about what might be relevant to them. Their introduction to computers came without prerequisites—no requirement to learn keyboarding first, or how a computer works, or what the Internet is, or even how to log on and log off. But now, if their interest was piqued to use the computers, mastery of the keyboard or the mouse was understandable, and they were motivated to acquire these skills. As interest built, SBSS recruited students from local colleges who spoke the seniors’ native language. The volunteers were told that all instruction would be one on one, using a methodology SBSS called “Teacher Follows the Student”―the tutors would ask the seniors what they would like to know about, and follow that lead. Each tutor was asked to volunteer one hour per week to help one senior for 12 or more weeks, but could spend more time with the senior if the tutor and senior wished.

Naturally evolving learning

SBSS intentionally avoided a set curriculum, preferring for the learning to evolve naturally, based on the seniors’ interests. As tutors worked with their students, they would make notes, write simple instructions, or download information to help their students. Sometimes the download required translation by the volunteers or staff. Over time, SBSS built a catalog of worksheets in various languages that tutors shared or students used for self teaching. In short order, 20 seniors, and then 40 seniors were learning the basics of computing. New friendships were forming based on their shared interest in computers. Two other unanticipated social factors evolved: