Exploring tech “later in life” offers lessons for tech challenges anytime

As  I reported in my previous post, I’ve just completed a team exploration at socialreporters.net into how we may use digital technology later in life for personal wellbeing. It has thrown up some wider lessons about how we might think about, and use, digital tech at any time in life.

The idea of an exploration as on open curating and reporting process came about from some work with the Big Lottery Fund, and then when the Nominet Trust invited me to write a provocations paper about young people and technology. Background on that here.

Instead of a closed research and drafting process, why not crowdsource ideas, run a workshop, develop contacts and aim to generate momentum around the topic at the same time? As I’ve summarised here, that process worked well on our latest exploration as well as the earlier one.

We now have a report with 10 proposition about digital technology and later life, a lot of background resources, and a network of people interested in learning more. You can join that network here.

It’s now time to see what more we can achieve, and to do that it seems appropriate to move from the structured approach we designed with our client on socialreporters.net, to something more free range, personal, and maybe a bit more provocative. I’ve explained the reasoning here.

John Popham has already made a start with an excellent post following up an issue I highlighted – the lack of collaboration between the bigger organisations in the field. That’s partly, I think, because there is intense competition for funding and little trust that a good idea or new theme won’t be picked up by another organisation without an offer of some part to play. However, John raises an even more fundamental issue:

The professionals and institutions which work with some older people are not comfortable with new technologies themselves. Issues here range from organisations which continue to block use of social media and will not or cannot provide their staff with smartphones, to technophobic frontline staff who pass their fears on to people they work with.

The organisations researching or promoting the use of digital technology with older people, often under the digital inclusion banner, may not be using it. Their “clients” are in reality funders who may not have a very nuanced idea of what’s needed either … so policy and development defaults to teaching people how to use computers and getting the numbers up for those allegedly engaged.

John identifies another couple of barriers to progress: the scariness of unfamiliar technology, and the lack of confidence (or willingness) of those who may be able to help older people to do so.

While these issues may be particularly evident later in life, I think they apply to many organisations and for many people at any time in life.

So one of the themes I’ll be exploring is whether we might use the challenges, and opportunities, of digital technology later in life as a good window through which to look at technology in life.  Our tag has been #dtlater. Should it now be #dtinlife? The government’s policy of moving services – and benefits – online means that opting out is difficult. Either you learn to cope with tech, or have someone act as a proxy.

Below are some of the 10 propositions we developed for the digital tech later in life exploration, that seem generally relevant to any time of life. Full report here.

  • Look at personal needs and interests as well as common motivations – one digital size won’t fit all.
  • Build on past experience with familiar technology as well as offering new devices – they may do the job.
  • Consider the new life skills and access people will need as technology changes our world – using technology is ceasing to be optional.
  • Turn the challenge of learning about technology into a new social opportunity – and make it fun.
  • Address social isolation and other challenges through a blend of online and offline – they don’t need to be different worlds.
  • Use digital technologies to enhance existing connections of family and friends – and help each other learn.
  • Look for ideas among those providing digital training and support – and help them realise them.

Here’s the main links cited above


  • Kate Norman
    May 8, 2013 - 6:57 am | Permalink

    I first heard the term ‘digital inclusion’ about 4-5 years ago. I had been volunteering to teach local people how to use tech at a local community centre and I was starting to dislike the approach I was being asked to use. I call it the adult education ‘sausage machine’ which required us as volunteers to provide specific learning with a little flexibility at the end.

    ‘Learners’ were asked to complete a tick box questionnaire at the end which they usually gave an over favorable evaluation as they were grateful of the support and . They probably would not retain a great deal. ‘Learners’ ended up coming through the sausage machine number of times.

    The desire to solve this problem for those people offline is pretty horrendous experience. When I met the internet it was all magic and amazement and a wiliness to learn more myself and not be spoon-fed drivel.

    I then offered my help to a local u3a group which I supported and helped grow for 2-3 years before stepping back. Informal adult education is the way forward, I believe. The difficulty is that for any ‘scale’ (read ‘funding’) the process always gets turned into a factory to try to turn offliners onto onliners. I like to group people together – they learn better from their own peers and it takes up less of my time.

    Many Digital Inclusion systems are ‘gamed’ by the people who are asked to deliver it because it is not fit for purpose and the people who it is supposed to support have a really bad experience.

    I’ve met, worked with and tried to advise all the major ‘companies’ at some point or another. 18 months ago I decided to more my focus to other projects. I am happy to support your idea. Didn’t Helen Milner try to do this 4 years ago with the Digital Inclusion Ning? Reach out to the informal groups and try to get them ‘involved’.

    Last night I was going round my village doing the Parish Broadband audit – I live in an area with <2mb internet. I met a few widowers, one who I tried to encourage online 2 years ago, I know she lives an isolated life. At the time her husband had just passed away and his computer was sitting gathering dust. The computer was 'his' thing – I offered to help her get it set up for her (with her fav picture as the desktop). I nearly had her. But just before that I met her at the WI with her friend and I offered the same support to the rest of the group.

    A funny thing then happened. The rest of the offline ladies then started talking about how they didn't need online, they had managed thus far without 'it' – they were 'too old' to learn anything or remember it for very long. The tide of my influence was against computers and the internet – and the group won – that lady decided to tell me that she didn't want me to come round and I had to admit defeat.

    Maybe I should have had a better comeback – but offliners like to convince others to stay offline I have found. To stay on the offline network where it is safe and known – if they are the only ones offline they will not be lonely on their own?

    Who knows. I do know that last night I met a lady, lonely, frightened to open the door. Maybe the internet would not have helped her. Maybe it is just part of old age for many? I have met so many who embrace the new.

    Another lady I met last night showed me all the photos of her family and friends and welcomed me into her house. A different experience all together – she told me she didn't have broadband and didn't foresee a need ever to have it – she has a telephone to speak to her relative and friends. She did show me a retirement magazine with a picture of a man her husband worked with who is 100 and used as she said a "thypad".

    I could maybe get her online – but I only take people who are willing – I can suggest thing they might want to do online – like find rag-rugging patterns or ordering wool. Doing supermarket shopping online when the weather is so bad they are unable to get out. Skyping or checking the stocks and shares! You have to talk to people to find out what really is their passion or interests – teaching them how to do an internet search is much more rewarding then teaching them email.

    I do it for the look in their eyes when they are amazed by how easy it is. I teach them that it is powered by adverts and like a magazine or newspaper not to trust everything they read but use their common sense – if something on the internet seems to good to be true – ask someone else if it.

    I couldn't make what I do into a business – I do it for the love of it and because I care about people and I love the internet myself.

  • Kate Norman
    May 8, 2013 - 7:07 am | Permalink

    Have you heard about situational leadership?

    I wonder if looking at the individual readiness of an individual and building stages to get them internet ready ?

    1. Are the doors open to the idea of doing something online?
    2. Is there a sufficient support network for their continued learning?
    3. Have they got access broadband and a device?
    4. Are they able to use the basic features of the device?

    The support network is key – like a weight watchers group – coffee time at my U3A group and the community centre was always the best support group.

    I always coerse others to volunteer to be a support – but try not to give the burden to any one person.

  • david wilcox
    May 8, 2013 - 11:52 am | Permalink

    Kate – thanks for two brilliant comments, both highlighting the need to put the person not the tech at the centre, and the importance of context. That emerged strongly in our exploration and propositions, but as you suggest the digital inclusion industry isn’t configured that way.
    We need to reframe.
    Picking up your suggestion on both this and situational learning – could we explore further using the approaches described here http://socialreporters.net/?p=960, developing semi-fictional characters and settings?

  • Kate Norman
    May 8, 2013 - 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Personas are always a good way to start to develop any ‘thing’ with people at the centre.

    I could do a few if you want?

  • david wilcox
    May 8, 2013 - 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Kate – some personas from you would be brilliant! Here’s a post about how we did that http://socialreporters.net/?p=960 with links to the workshop personas.
    More here on another front – community enablers http://socialreporters.net/?p=720
    The aim might then be to develop a set of ideas (also known as a social app store) for what would be useful for a character.

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