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Digital Native, Meet Digital Immigrant: Building Intergenerational Relationships Through a Technology Literacy Project

photos courtesy of BGSU Marketing and Communications.

Kate Magsamen-Conrad, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Bowling Green State University. Her work is in health and interpersonal communication with a special focus in community-based applied projects. Kate's work also includes a broad concentration on how communication affects personal, relational, and health outcomes -e.g., examination of how dyadic/family communication facilitates health, disease management, adherence, and the experience of burden.

Over the summer, I attempted to teach my grandmother how to use her laptop. The fallout of that experience inspired me to create a program where my college students would teach technology skills to older adults in the community. Late in the Fall semester, I learned I would teach a Small Group Communication Class and thought that might be a good fit. I had joined a Service-Learning group that semester, and the director of that program connected me to the director of the gerontology program at my university, who connected me to the Wood County Committee on Aging. I approached two individuals at the WCCOA late in December 2012 and together we planned the first run of what I have been calling the Intergroup Communication Intervention…which launched in January 2013. I chose to focus on tablet technology because in my experience an individual can become independent using a tablet, but a computer requires significantly more “interaction” (e.g., message boxes constantly popping up asking if the user wants to do something, sneaky viruses, and, of course, the possibility of “crashing” and “losing everything”).

On the first day of class in the Spring I described this project to students and collected their schedules. The students seemed both excited and apprehensive—this project is both highly creative and unstructured, and both are aspects they are relatively unprepared for in higher education (“wait, there’s no rubric?”). I shared the details of the project with the students as I understood them and told the students we had room in the class for a few more students. I was both pleased and surprised when my class filled that first week.

The launch of the project required a significant degree of tolerance and flexibility from both the students and the WCCOA. For example, we could set the schedule for the tablet workshops until after the start of the semester because the workshop offerings were based on the students’ schedules. My community partners journey to campus each semester to facilitate a training session for my students that helps them acclimate to the project. Each semester, the WCCOA advertises the workshops and facilitates enrollment and scheduling. We hold the workshops at their facility downtown where they set up the “classroom” and we wage war with the wifi.

The ICI surprises me every semester. In the first semester, the students completed periodic reflection activities and a final reflection paper. For the second and third semesters, I added twice weekly journal entries. These resources that have helped me discover the true community impact of this project. The following section includes project implications and illustrative quotes from students.

Relationship Building
I anticipated that the ICI would help older adults improve their technology skills and younger adults reduce ageist attitudes. I did not realize the depth of relationship building that would occur between the groups. For example, each semester I have former students ask about their older adults. Current students discuss “catching up and talking to” the older adults in their classes as well as “discussing their hobbies and interests so I could recommend certain Apps they might like.” Another student shared in her journal: “Overall, I really enjoyed our experience at the Senior Center yesterday. I am really enjoying the patience and understanding that I am continuously gaining through my interactions with the senior citizens. They truly are a highlight of my week. And I am hopeful that they too, are excited and eager to meet with us each week. I really believe that we have an established rapport and continue to strengthen these relationships!”

The relationship building really helps to facilitate the positive attitude change. Many times students do not believe they hold stereotypical attitudes, but share concerns that someone might “drop dead” during a tablet class or “beat” them “with a cane” or simply that “old people are rude.” The change in attitude is palpable across the semester as students journal their experiences. For example, prior to the workshop’s onset, one student wrote: “attendance is the key to my success with this project for me because I only have patience for old people when they are my grandmother not others. I feel old people are mean and so judgmental to one another and they don’t give us young kids a shot at being genuine. I hope this class we’re presenting changes the way some older people think.” After the first workshop at the senior center, this student wrote: “I am excited also to be doing work outside a classroom that also helps me learn by taking me out the classroom. I think these classes are going to be a wonderful experience and I am looking forward to it.” By the end of the semester the student shared: "I cannot express enough my pure joy with working with the members of our class. Each one has been so patient with us and has really benefitted from these classes. I love that not only do we get to teach them about these tablets, but we are learning about their personal lives, their stories, and their experiences. I truly think that it is our willingness to be vulnerable and share our lives with them that our open and fluent communication is evident."

The material in the tablet workshops also enables older adults to maintain their existing relationships. For example, one student shares “Next week the agenda will cover how to open skype and send emails. The seniors are really looking forward to this because they expressed interest in wanting to learn how to connect with their loved ones. One of the seniors even mentioned wanting to create a Facebook account. I think it is really fascinating how excited the seniors get when learning about the various functions of their kindles. In the class they help each other out and no senior is left isolated which was a concern of mine at the beginning.”


These relationships help stimulate an environment where students care about older adults’ progress: “My favorite thing is do listen to Diane and Sue talk about cookbooks and how they dislike Martha Stewart’s grin and how they wouldn’t download Martha’s cookbook even if it’s free. I enjoyed today’s lesson and am looking forward to getting back teaching them about email because that’s one of the main topics they want to learn about and the most complicated for them to learn so I am anxious to see how fast they pick up on it.”

Students appreciate this experience so much that they often encourage continuation of the ICI project: “I think this should be a learning experience both for us as Bowling Green students and for the older adults as students of our tablet classes. The older and younger generations do not interact enough and this is a good way to get the ball rolling. To understand someone I think you have to be around them enough and interact with them and our generation does not attempt to get to know older adults very often.”

Digital Native, Meet Digital Immigrant
The undergraduate students who complete this class are not trained technology experts. Many of them need to teach themselves about a particular tablet (e.g., the Kindle Fire) before they can teach their elders. However, these students are “digital natives” – they have grown up surrounded by technology. For many students, this project is eye opening to how that is not true for other segments of the population, for example: “We started out by having them take a picture of themselves ... I was surprised to see that some members actually … don’t know how to use the camera.” Another student shared: “I did a lot of resetting passwords this class. It seemed as if all but maybe one or two had Apple ID’s already, which is great. Half of those who did didn’t remember their password! It was such a frustrating process because I know I can remember mine and if not, it takes me less than two minutes to retrieve it. It took them forever because we had to go through their email and then it was a hassle for them to remember their email password.. haha! Diane even had to reset hers twice! With a little patience, we all got through it and everything worked out just fine.”

Students also had the opportunity to see information sharing on social media from another perspective: “I found it really funny how the seniors thought it was such a big deal that if they posted a status, everybody they were friends with could see it. The little things that we as college kids don’t really think much about, are usually thought of as a big deal by the seniors which really shows the difference in generations.”

Self-Confidence and Skill Building
Another result of the ICI Tablet Workshop project is students’ gains in efficacy. This applies to both personal experiences and social learning, for example, as one student wrote: “Some of my group members seemed nervous about this experience so I hope they find a way to get through the anxiety. I understand some people have a real fear of public speaking so this could help them face their fears.” Students’ journal entries allow me to witness how they not only build their confidence and skills, but also how they express pride in their accomplishments coupled with a desire to continue to improve, “All in all I think we nailed this class. The seniors seemed happy, we felt like we accomplished something… I am just hoping that the next class goes even better than this one.”

The Joy of Giving Back
According to my statistical analyses, the ICI Project significantly increases students' intentions to volunteer, increases dyadic trust, and reduces audience-based communication apprehension. Most students also journal about how they want to volunteer after the class. One of my red letter days was when I got to see intention turn to action as one of my students organized the watercolor painting class she's going to teach at the Senior Center this summer, for no credit or compensation.

In sum, this semester we held a “graduation celebration” for everyone who participated in the ICI Workshops. This quote from a students’ pre-graduation journal articulates the ICI experience: “I have learned a lot during this experience. I am proud to be apart of this community, and I’m glad to be apart of introducing technology to the elders of our community. Everyone should know how to access technology. It’s sad that this might be the last time I ever see the students or even my group members again. It has been a great ride even though it came with some challenges. Not only did I learn how to overcome these challenges, they taught me a lot about myself. I would love to do this again in this future. I feel like I am more in tuned with the community because of this class. We got to actually meet members of the community that lived here all their life. I hope the students enjoyed the classes as much we did. It will be nice to see everyone dressed up and be able to talk to each other about things other than the tablets. This will be a bittersweet goodbye. I am glad that I was apart of this and was able to teach our students a little something. Because of this class, I am way more comfortable with speaking in front of adults. This was a great experience.”

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