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Educational Gerontology

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Technology: Education and Training Needs of Older Adults

Lesa Huber & Carol Watson

To cite this article: Lesa Huber & Carol Watson (2014) Technology: Education and Training Needs of Older Adults, Educational Gerontology, 40:1, 16-25, DOI: 10.1080/03601277.2013.768064

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Accepted author version posted online: 22 Jul 2013. Published online: 06 Sep 2013.

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Educational Gerontology, 40: 16–25, 2014 Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0360-1277 print/1521-0472 online DOI: 10.1080/03601277.2013.768064

Technology: Education and Training Needs of Older Adults

Lesa Huber

School of Public Health, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA

Carol Watson

Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA

The impact of the global aging of the population on social, economic, political, and health care institutions is unequaled. Parallel to this, evolving developments in technology promise opportuni- ties for sales and product development to support positive aging. Older adults are excited to utilize technologies that they perceive as practical. However, age, education, technical knowledge, and technological anxiety affect interest in new technologies, creating a technology divide. Providing more accessible and relevant technologies for today’s older adults may make the technology more universally accessible. This article reports the results of a survey on technology and education among a sample o f 77 adults between the ages of 52 and 92 who attended a week-long lifelong- learning event at Indiana University. Familiarity with technology, age, education, and gender were found to be correlated with familiarity with new technologies as well as operating and shopping for new electronic devices.

Two important trends will be driving significant economic development in the coming decades. The global aging of the population is unparalleled in the impact it will have on social, economic, political, and health care institutions. Simultaneously, rapid developments in technology promise new opportunities and products that can support aging in positive ways. The convergence of these two trends, spurred by demographic destiny and entrepreneurial opportunity, suggest that tech- nology will play an increasingly important role in later life. Technology is a pervasive part of our current lifestyles and a fundamental component of our everyday activities. It also holds the prom- ise of facilitating health and independence at a fraction of the cost of long-term care (Siek, Rogers & Connelly, 2005).

Many older adults have a desire to use new technologies but have more trouble than younger adults in purchasing, utilizing, and troubleshooting new devices (Czaja et al., 2006; Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012a). This article reports the results of a survey on technology and education training needs among a sample of 77 adults between the ages of 52 and 92. We

Address correspondence to Lesa Huber, 1025 E. 7th Street, Suite 116, Bloomington, IN 47405. E-mail: [email protected]


examined how age, gender, education level, and technology experience affected buying prefer- ences, preferred way to learn how to operate new devices, and sources of support when problems are encountered in using a device.


Internet usage has risen steadily among older adults. In 2000, only 15% of Americans aged 65+ used the Internet (Fox, 2001). As of April 2012, 41% of people over age 65 were online (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012b), although there is a sharp decline in technology among the group of people 76 and older (the G.I. Generation). In this group, only 34% of people have adopted the Internet (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012a). The main ways in which people over 65 use the Internet are for e-mail and searching (for news, health information, product information, family research, and travel reservations) (Fox & Madden, 2005; Goodman, Syme, & Eisma, 2003; Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012b). Less common uses include online purchasing, searching government sites, online games, and online photos. Because the Internet is increasingly used for information dissemination, nonusers find themselves at a growing disadvantage (Czaja & Lee, 2003; Kaufman & Rockoff, 2006; Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012a).

While older adults have indicated great interest in learning to use technologies like fax machines, photocopiers, smartphones, and computers, they also perceive that they might have difficulty learning to use these systems and that younger people could probably learn to use them more quickly (Rogers, Meyer, Walker, & Fisk, 1998). Among adults who do not use the Internet, almost half say that the main reason for not going online is “because they don’t think the Internet is relevant to them” (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012b, p. 2). Most have never used the Internet before, and only 1 in 10 is interested in using the Internet or e-mail in the future (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012b).


Stereotypes about older people not being interested in using technology have been largely dis- proven (Morrell, Mayhorn, & Echt, 2004, Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012b). Older adults are very interested in taking advantage of technologies that they perceive to be useful. However, there are a number of both personal and social factors that influence older adults’ pur- chase and use of technologies. Personal factors include functional status, education, socioeco- nomic status, attitudes toward technology, and the perceived usefulness of the technology. As of 2011, the strongest positive predictors of Internet use remain strongly correlated with age, educa- tion, and household income (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012b). Larger social fac- tors include the dynamism in technology design, cohort-based differences, stage of life (Dutton, 2006) and availability and access to technology (Czaja et al., 2006; Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012a, 2012b).

Personal Factors

Raymond Cattell first identified two types of general intelligence as fluid and crystallized (Cattell, 1941, 1950, 1971). Fluid intelligence is that which supports a person’s capacity to think in a more


abstract way: to reason, identify patterns, and detect relationships. Fluid intelligence is fairly independent of education or cultural effects (Horn & Cattell, 1966a, 1966b; Horn, 1967) and generally reaches its pinnacle in a person’s 20s, and then declines; thus, older adults are signifi- cantly less able to access this type of intelligence in learning new technological skills (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006; Horn & Cattell, 1967; Lee, Lyoo, Kim, Jang, & Lee, 2005).

On the other hand, crystallized intelligence is a result of learning and acculturation, and it increases over the lifetime as new experiences are added to one’s life (Horn & Cattell, 1967; Lee et al., 2005). It is the sum of the verbal skills, information, and experiences that one accumulates across time. Crystallized intelligence is the skill of applying old knowledge to new situations and is an intelligence that normal older adults have in abundance. Understanding these concepts assists in understanding how older adults process new information, particularly as it relates to learning technological skills, which are completely new experiences and may not relate back to any prior knowledge.

In addition to the increased dependence on crystallized intelligence, aging-related changes in perceptual and psychomotor abilities and their impact on computer use are well documented (Czaja & Lee, 2003; Morrell, Dailey, & Rousseau, 2003; Ownby, 2006). They include normal changes in vision, hearing, perception, memory, comprehension, information processing, work- ing memory, and/or motor dexterity. Put simply, normal aging means a general slowing down of both the physical and cognitive abilities needed to learn about and use technologies, including computers. People with impaired vision or problems with motor dexterity are only half as likely to use the Internet as people without impairments (National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NTIA], 2002.)

Age, education, technical knowledge, and technological anxiety affect interest in new tech- nologies. Ellis and Allaire (1999) examined the effects of these variables on elders’ computer interest. Age was found to be negatively associated with computer knowledge and interest, but positively associated with computer anxiety. Higher levels of knowledge led to less anxiety and more interest. Other psychological factors, such as self-efficacy, might mediate the effect of these variables on technology adoption.

Social Factors

If normal aging can be characterized as a slowing down, new technologies can be characterized as speeding up. The dynamism in the broader computing ecosystem receives little attention in relation to senior use (Notess & Lorenzen-Huber, 2007). New technologies have rapidly evolving user interfaces (e.g., iPhones, track balls, touchscreens, web-enabled devices). In addition, over time there are inconsistencies in organization, terminology, navigation, and conventions between, or even within, types of devices. There is little data about design issues related to technology and older adults (Czaja & Lee, 2003). Older people complain about complexity and jargon, suggest- ing that the design of devices is more of a barrier than declines in physical and cognitive abilities (Goodman et al., 2003). In a focus group study of older adults, 53% of the frustrations in using various technologies were attributable to design issues (Rogers, Mayhorn, & Fisk, 2004).

There is a general youth-bias in the technology ecosystem and a stereotype of seniors as technology-averse. Designers prefer to design for people like themselves rather than for people in a different stage of life with very different wants and needs (Keates & Clarkson, 2002).


Designers are inclined toward the new and cool, creating a rapidly moving target of web-based interfaces that requires constant relearning. The digital divide must be crossed not once, but many times (Ito, O’Day, Adler, Linde, & Mynatt, 2001).

Besides design issues, cohort differences affect the education and training needs of older adults using new technologies. People who are now over 65 belong to a cohort that has been called the Greatest Generation and the younger olds. Born between 1922–1945, the oldest of this cohort retired before the personal computer was a common piece of office equipment. A part of that group, those 76 and older, have become known as the G. I. Generation and older olds. In 2010, 68% of nonusers from the G. I. Generation “said they did not feel confident enough [to start using the Internet] and would need someone to help them get online” (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012a, p. 6). In contrast, the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) not only use computers, but played a major role in the transformation of digital, electronic, and online technologies (Dychtwald, 1999).

While non-Internet users over 65 say that they have no need for the Internet, those who have learned to use it say the main benefit of the Internet is usefulness (Goodman et al., 2003; Morrell et al., 2004; Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012a). Although Internet use in general declines with age in cross-sectional studies, for Internet users the popularity of e-mail actually increases with age (NTIA, 2002). This demonstrates the interest in only the simplest and most practical uses of the Internet by the oldest of users.


In an effort to more deeply understand both their perceptions of technology and the ways in which technology is used by older adults, the researchers developed a survey for use during their session titled, Gizmos, Gadgets, and You at Mini University in June of 2008. Mini University is a lifelong learning event held for one week on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. In this session, a variety of technologies were presented and attendees were invited to ask ques- tions about their purchase and use. At the conclusion of the session, attendees had the option of completing a paper and pencil survey about their own technology use. Institutional Review Board approval was obtained for this pilot study.


A total of 77 participants completed the survey. Questions were all based on four or five-point Likert-type scales. They were divided into roughly three sections: buying preferences, preferred way to learn how to operate new devices, and sources of support used when problems were encountered. Participants were between the ages of 52 and 92, with a mean age of 71. There were 40 females and 33 males (4 participants did not report gender). The sample was fairly well edu- cated; 82% of the participants had completed a bachelors degree or higher. Obviously, all partici- pants in the survey were also students at Mini University, and so it can be assumed that they were interested in both continuous learning and the topic of technology.



In determining key findings, we looked for any statistically significant correlations between age, gender, education level, and technology experience. Table 1 contains a brief summary of findings with regards to age, gender, education level, and self-rated technology experience.

TABLE 2 Statistically Significant Correlations Between Variables (at the .05 Level)

Age Gender Education Tech level

Questions related to operating a new electronic device Call the helpline 0.256 Pay a consultant 0.247 Questions related to shopping for a new electronic device Don’t know what to ask when shopping (0.284) Intimidated by shopping (0.333) (0.351) Consult friends/family 0.316 (0.239) (0.321) Research on the Internet (0.361) Overwhelmed (0.379) Familiarity with the following technical terms/devices PDA (0.251) 0.249 0.522 Hardware (0.374) 0.441 Software (0.292) 0.347 DVD player (0.276) Smartphone (0.317) 0.445 Wireless router (0.246) 0.310 TiVo 0.280 Operating system 0.238 0.538 Blackberry 0.339 CD 0.369 mp3 player 0.372 GPS navigation (0.262) 0.290 HDTV (0.263) Camcorder . 0.331 Coffeepot (0.335) GPS system 2 (0.451) Home stereo (0.432) Cellular phone (0.248) Flashdrive 0.416

TABLE 1 Age, Gender, Education Level and Self-Rated Technology Experience

Statistically Significant Correlations Between Variables (at the .05 Level)

Age Gender Education Tech level

Age 1.000 NS NS NS Gender NS 1.000 NS (0.258) Education NS NS 1.000 0.359 Techlevel NS (0.258) 0.359 1.000


Although various age groups were represented among survey participants, no significant correlations between age and education, gender, or technology were found. We also sought significant correlations between the four variables (age, gender, education, and self-rated tech- nology level) in regards to use, familiarity with technology terms and devices, and ways in which users seek assistance or shop for new electronic items. Table 2 indicates that there was some correlation between these four variables.


Of the four variables, technology level was significantly correlated to several variables tested in the survey. As expected, there was a positive correlation between technical experience and famil- iarity with devices and terms. Respondents who had completed four or more years of college also reported higher levels of familiarity with technical terms and knowledge of devices such as PDA, smartphones, and operating systems. Interestingly, the findings also revealed a negative correla- tion between technology level and willingness to ask a friend, call the help line, or contact tech support. Limitations of the study did not reveal how individuals with higher levels of technologi- cal familiarity resolved technical problems.


There was a surprising negative correlation between education level and being comfortable shop- ping for a technological device; the more educated participants were less comfortable (more intim- idated) with the prospect of shopping for a new device. Those participants who rated their technical experience as high also reported that they were more intimidated by shopping for new technology. Education was positively correlated with technology level in males, but not with females. (There was no real correlation between self-reported technology experience and education in females.)


The findings revealed a significant positive correlation between age and the willingness to con- tact a consultant when learning how to operate a new electronic gadget. In other words, the older the individual, the more likely he/she would be to call a consultant. There was also a negative correlation between older adults and their use of the Internet for researching a device before shopping. This bears out previous research indicating that older adults are less likely to use the Internet to search for information (Czaja & Lee, 2003; Kaufman & Rockoff, 2006; Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2012a).

Gender and Technology

An analysis of the data also revealed that males rated themselves as being more familiar with vari- ous technological terms and devices including hardware, software, DVD players, wireless routers,


and GPS navigation systems. With regards to seeking assistance, the results showed that female participants were more likely to call friends for assistance before making a purchase. Interestingly, there was no correlation between gender and not knowing what to ask when shopping, being intimidated by shopping for a new device, searching for information on the Internet, or feeling overwhelmed when shopping for a new device. Older men and women feel the same about these situations, though we do not have enough information to know if they are comfortable or not.


It should be noted that our sample was atypical in that respondents were more educated than the general population of older adults. Respondents who completed four or more years of col- lege reported higher levels of familiarity with technical terms and knowledge of devices such as pda, smart phones, and operating systems. Still, because of the rapidly changing techno- logical landscape, older adults face a steep learning curve as they are surrounded with many new and evolving technologies. In spite of this, one would expect that as the experience with technology goes up, the comfort level would also go up. However, our sample demonstrated that as the reported level of experience with technology goes up, respondents also reported feeling more intimidated by shopping for new devices. The question that arises here is this: Do young adults, who are perceived as being very technologically savvy, also feel intimidated by shopping for new technological devices? There may be a difference between comfort in using a technology and confidence in one’s capabilities to purchase a new device that may have different features from the older one that individuals are more comfortable with. This may be related to the concept of crystallized intelligence and indicate more general anxiety than previously thought.

Our educated sample also reported that they were less likely to seek assistance from a friend, call the help line, or contact tech support. While our survey did not ask for respondents to explain their answers, it is possible that educated individuals may fear looking stupid in front of their peers and others. Because these folks are likely to still have technology needs, one must consider how to overcome this barrier and find comfortable ways to offer support.

This begs the question of the perceived usefulness of technology. While almost all young adults can be seen walking the streets, chatting on cell phones, texting on smartphones, or with white wires dangling to iPods, older adults may not value those technologies in the same way. Young adults have often grown up with a cell phone and feel that they must be connected and available at all hours and in all places. Older adults are steeped in their own habits, acquired during a different era. Older adults may not be technology-shy but may simply not see the need for much of what is currently available. Consider the situation of a home-bound older adult. There is no need for a cell phone, because the person is not very mobile. On the other hand, older adults who travel or are more mobile may perceive the value of a cell phone differently and be more likely to have one.

Often new technologies have too many features, some of which may intimidate older users or may not be seen as being useful. For example, a cell phone might be seen as useful, but not the texting function, and certainly not the camera. Older adults may say that they have e-mail for messages and a camera for photos. They do not see the advantage in having those tools combined into one complex device. This is in direct contrast to young adults, who capture photos and


videos, upload them to the social networking sites, send texts, and access the Internet; all this is done on their cell phones. For older adults, simple is often viewed as better. Simple, monofunc- tional devices with clear, easy-to-follow instructions are often more valued by older adults than complex, multifunctional devices with manuals that must be read (and perhaps memorized) in order to be able to utilize many features.

In addition, older adults may be unaware of features that actually could be useful. Indeed, older users may feel that they have mastered a certain device when, in fact, they are barely a naïve user. They have the misperception that they know how to use a technology; therefore, they will not ask for assistance even when that additional learning could be of benefit to them. However, this may also be a more general challenge than simply one of age. Anecdotally, one researcher who taught a Technology in Education course to undergraduates found that the students regularly misrepresented their skills with certain programs. They often thought of themselves as skilled users until they were shown the range of possibilities. It would be interesting to compare young adults with older adults in this regard.

One positive piece of data showed that the older a person is, the more likely s/he is to contact a consultant for advice on how to operate a new technology. This means that they are willing to be taught, a characteristic of adult learners (Knowles, 1984, 1990). Adult learners are motivated to learn on a need to know basis, and a new technology certainly presents a need to know. This is the question that then arises: Who is the best person to ask? In terms of providing support, con- sideration must be given to what older users of a device would need to know in order to operate it on their own.

One trend highlighted by the data was that of males rating themselves as being more familiar with various technological terms and devices than females, although females were more likely to call friends for advice before purchasing a new device. This information points to the need for a type of graduated training that would address the various issues brought to the fore by age, gender, and previous technology experience. Lastly, older adults need to be taught more than just the how-to’s of operating a device. Education or training should assist older adults to understand the underlying structure of new technologies. This approach will better prepare them to apply their learning to new technologies and to troubleshooting problems with existing technologies. In other words, they would be better prepared to help themselves if the need arose.


More and more Boomers are retiring or getting ready to retire. Therefore, research on technology and ways of teaching technological skills that support aging well should be at the forefront. More research, especially translational research, should to be done to help older adults effectively use technologies that support health, independence, safety, and social engagement. Our pilot study was limited in that responses asked for did not include a request for explanations. Nevertheless, there are some points that must be attended to as we work to meet the technology education and training needs of older adults:

• Learners operate on a need-to-know basis (Knowles, 1984, 1990), so the materials accompanying devices should be thoughtfully and simply written. Using older adults as a test population for user manuals would, in the end, make it simpler for all people to


more easily become familiar with new devices. This suggestion follows universal design guidelines.

• Take a more learner-centered approach and develop strategies to help individuals change or adapt to new technology. Some people need to read about it, some people need to reflect, some people need to talk to others who have been through the process, and some like details ahead of time.

• Similarities between populations should be delineated. This could lessen the stereotypes of young adults as people who know everything about technology (and may feel pressured because of that) and older adults as people who know nothing (and may feel unempow- ered because of that stereotype).

Addressing these challenges will advance our understanding of technology issues for all people.


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