TAO/Handbook/Fostering Older Adults Online Participation

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Even though the number of older adults participating in online activities, online social networks and online communities has been growing in the past few years, the representation of older adults in these areas of internet usage remains sub-proportional (Zickuhr, 2010; Initiative D21, 2010; European Commission, 2010). Our activities and research in the TAO project show that many older adults have strong reservations against online participation. Apart from fundamental problems of access and technology we also find security concerns and often a lack of support from persons‘ social environment. Moreover, many older persons cannot imagine what personal benefit for their everyday lives they could draw from a participation in online communities. An online community is relevant to an older person’s life if it helps to fulfill a certain desire, is in line with personal beliefs and values and serves to attain goals and plans (Bishop, 2007). Some “young-old” persons have the image of an online community as being useful only for socially disintegrated, immobile, “old-old” persons. It is interesting that many older persons do identify a concrete benefit for the “older old”, for instance for preserving independence in case of limited mobility. Many “younger old” state: “When I am older I can imagine using online communities but there‘s still time!” (Sourbati, 2009). Therefore, a central challenge for persons in charge of an online community or for online community trainers and multiplicators is to demonstrate the potential personal benefit to be gained from online collaboration and online communities. While the benefits of online participation and collaboration may be obvious to digital natives they must be explicitly communicated to older adults who did not grow up using the internet. Work carried out in the TAO project indicates that using or not using online communities is less a question of technological barriers (usability) but rather a question of motivation and the expected benefit, especially concerning social integration in older age. For this reason, working with role models and good examples is crucial.

Recommendations[edit | edit source]

Address older adults' resources[edit | edit source]

Regardless of the specific approach you take when addressing older adults, your focus should be on older adults’ resources (knowledge, competences, skills) rather than on their possible lack of experience with using online media. Ask yourself: What can we offer older adults? You will find that in order to answer this question you will need to know more about the values, interests, needs and activities of your target group. In that respect it is important to remember that older adults are far from being a homogeneous group of people. Rather, the diversity of lifestyles and interests tends to increase among older adults because older adults today enjoy many more years of life in good health and independence than was the case 20 years ago. It is important to note that this diversity includes the experience and skills in using the internet. In other words, it is all but impossible to address older adults “in general”. This makes it all the more important to define your target group more narrowly.

Use collaborative methods of learning and online community development[edit | edit source]

If you are intending to have older adults collaborate actively in your online community or other online social networking site it is beneficial to view older adults as stakeholders. In order for older adults to integrate easily into your online community or to become more active you probably need to innovate. Rather than teaching or instructing older adults on how to use your existing online product you instead focus on initiating a mutual learning process. The goal in using so-called co-creation methods is to create a user-driven open innovation ecosystem which enables users to take an active part in the research, development and innovation process. You allow members to share, combine and renew each other's ideas, opinions and findings through forms of interaction and learning and you involve members in innovating the existing and developing new services and applications.

Involve older adult volunteers[edit | edit source]

Integrating new users into your online community can be very time-consuming. This is one of the reasons why many online communities work with older adult volunteers. These volunteers are members of the online community and can serve as interesting examples for the target group. Volunteers can be active in a number of different roles, namely as course instructors or tutors, as user supporters, as ambassadors at promotional events, etc. Working with older adult volunteers has a number of advantages. It allows for taking a peer-to-peer approach which avoids the situation where “competent” younger adults instruct “incompetent” older adults on how to use online media. It makes use of the fact that in many online communities there are older adults who are willing and able to work as multipliers and disseminators of the benefits of online communities. Volunteers who organize community “group activities” help facilitate the identification of new community members with the community. Group activities also foster the empowerment of older adult community members. Managers of online communities choosing to work with older adult volunteers should be conscious of the fact that they are initiating a bottom-up process that has the potential of changing the culture of the online community and they should be willing to support this process. Moreover, with an increased number of volunteers, online communities need to focus more on questions of volunteer management.

Use appropriate language for manuals and handbooks[edit | edit source]

Using manuals and handbooks remains an important channel for disseminating information about interesting Web 2.0 offers and their usage. In order to be easily accessible, manuals should be written in a practical language that is tailored to the older adult. A method used in the framework of the TAO project is the Visual Steps Method (or Visual Steps concept). In using this method attention is paid to the special needs and requirements of the target group. For example, the Visual Steps publications contain easy to understand, visually oriented, step by step instructions and feature practical, useful information, tips and helpful hints (cf. www.visualsteps.com).

Theoretical Background[edit | edit source]

An important methodology related to the recommendations made in this handbook is ‘Design Thinking’, which was developed at Stanford University by Larry Leifer, Dave Kelley, Terry Winograd. Design thinking is primarily understood as a step-by-step learning process during which the goal is for stakeholders and developers to interact for the sake of generating new knowledge and to take this knowledge as a starting point for the development of improved solutions (see figure 1 for the distinct phases of the Design Thinking process). The Design Thinking approach allows to clearly distinguish the different phases of an innovation process, to consciously alternate between concrete and abstract thinking and to put humans at the center of attention. It is particularly suited for design challenges that focus on developing empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging innovation, and fostering active problem solving.

Figure 1:Design Thinking Process: The blue lines represent the possible iterative backward steps, the red lines the solution cycles for each phase

In the TAO project, the design thinking method is used for the development of e-learning modules. Design thinking is also the method of choice for developing the handbook that you are looking at right now. In a similar vein, online communities willing to innovate in order to become more attractive for older adults can work with a co-creation approach called Living Lab. A Living Lab is a user-driven open innovation ecosystem which enables users to take an active part in the research, development and innovation process of a company or organisation. These co-creation sessions might result in discovering new and emerging behaviours and user patterns, while involving all relevant players of the value network. Thus, the Living Lab approach provides managers of online communities with important insights on how to adapt the online community in order to be better equipped for attracting older adults. Notice that these kinds of collaborative methods are especially suitable for problem solving and innovation, in which all participants have an equal say. Participating older adults are regarded as competent stakeholders and not mainly as learners of particular online media skills.

Links to other handbook chapters[edit | edit source]

Target Groups

Older Adults and Online Communities



TAO Survey Among Elderly - Wave 1

Online Communities

References[edit | edit source]

Bishop, J. (2007). Increasing participation in online communities: A framework for human-computer interaction. Computer in Human Behaviour, 23, 1881-1893.

European Commission (2010). Information society statistics. Downloaded on the internet: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/information_society/data/main_tables (12 June, 2011).

Initiative D21 (2010). (N)Onliner Atlas 2010. Eine Topographie des digitalen Grabens durch Deutschland. Downloaded on the internet: www.initiatived21.de (15 June, 2011).

Sourbati, M. (2009). “It could be useful, but not for me at the moment”: older people, internet access and e-public service provision. New Media & Society, 11(7), 1083-1100.

Zickuhr, K. (2010). Generations 2010. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Generations-2010.aspx