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Digital Inclusion for Older Adults: The Role of Educational Gerontechnology

As we advance further into the 21st century, it is clear that populations are ageing, and technology is developing at an unprecedented rate. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to pay attention to the digital inclusion of older adults due to the increased demand for Internet use during the implementation of public health measures. For example, in 2019, 47% of older adults used the Internet in Chile, but this figure increased to 58% after the COVID-19 pandemic. Such increases lead us to ask: how can we ensure that this age group has the requisite knowledge and skills to navigate the digital world? To address this challenge, it may be beneficial to draw upon interdisciplinary expertise to develop a comprehensive vision regarding older adults’ digital inclusion. Towards this end, I propose the notion of educational gerontechnology, a conception which seeks to integrate gerontology, human-computer interaction (HCI), and human rights to design effective educational programs for digital inclusion. By combining gerontology’s expertise on ageing with the latest advancements in HCI and human rights approaches, initiatives that meet the specific needs of older populations can be developed and implemented.

From gerontology and its subfields, educational gerontology and socio-gerontechnology, we understand that educational interventions – such as those promoting digital inclusion among older adults – can enhance well-being. Educational gerontology offers valuable opportunities to promote empowerment, self-efficacy, and self-awareness among older adults. This type of education can also help prevent cognitive decline and promote social inclusion by facilitating the establishment of new connections.

However, education for older adults presents unique challenges for educators. One of these being asymmetries in the educator-participant relationship. Typically, the educator is younger than their trainees, making it difficult to establish a traditional teacher-student dynamic. Instead of this relationship, it may be more productive to think in terms of collaboration, with the educator and participants learning from each another. In this context, it is crucial to consider education from a constructivist perspective, simply because knowledge emerges during the educational process.

Educators working towards digital inclusion should start by introducing the fundamentals regarding how to operate technological devices. They should then gradually present more complex procedures ensuring they challenge, but do not overwhelm, participants. It is also essential that participants can apply their learning to their everyday lives so they can benefit from its use, and remain motivated to learn.

The HCI field is indispensable as it emphasizes studying the interaction between humans and technological devices and platforms. By prioritizing usability and people-centred design, HCI specialists can produce technology that is not just user-friendly but accessible. The goal is to create a universal design that promotes the usability of devices and digital applications for older adults beyond those exclusively designed for this age group. For instance, for older adults interested in playing online games there is a lack of universal design, whereby small lettering or low colour contrast can hinder the usability of many games for those with impaired vision.

The fact that older adults were not born into the digital age may contribute to their anxiety when using technological devices. This anxiety is often exacerbated by difficulties handling the device or interface, leading to feelings of frustration for both the user and the educator. Such frustration can ultimately result in abandoning the learning task. Some of these issues may stem from poor design regarding the device's usability, leading to time-consuming mistakes and demotivation. This situation exemplifies why HCI is crucial to educational gerontechnology; the digital inclusion of older adults will be very difficult without appropriately designed devices.

But how can we develop suitable designs? As we delve deeper into the world of educational gerontechnology, one thing becomes clear: it is important to engage older adults in co-designing devices for their use. This process involves including older adults in all stages of the design and development process, from identifying needs and goals to testing and evaluating technology. Additionally, we need to consider their learning needs for acquiring certain skills. By including their input in this process, we can ensure that the technology and educational programs we develop for older adults actually meets their preferences and requirements.

Despite the usefulness of co-designing with older adults, such collaborative activity is seldom practiced. One reason for this is a lack of awareness and understanding regarding the process and benefits of such collaborations. Many developers and educators may fail to recognise the value of older adults’ input, and/or how to effectively involve them in the design process. Additionally, there may be a perception that older adults are not interested in co-design or that they lack the requisite skills and resources to engage in this activity. However, co-designing with older adults can take many forms, including focus groups, interviews, and user testing. Whatever the approach, it is essential to ensure that older adults are listened to, respected, and valued.

Co-designing with older adults is not only the right thing to do, but it also leads to better outcomes. Older adults are experts regarding their own lives and needs, therefore, by involving them in the design process, we can ensure that the technology and learning programs we develop are relevant and effective. But co-designing with older adults does not solely consist of developing technology and learning programs, it also concerns creating a culture of inclusion and respect. By involving older adults in the design process, we impart the message that their voices matter and their perspectives are valuable. This approach will help combat ageism and promote a more inclusive society.

We cannot forget the importance of human rights approaches in educational gerontechnology. Older adults deserve the same rights and opportunities as any other age group, including the right to access information and participate in decision-making. By placing older adults at the centre of initiatives, we can ensure they have the tools to participate fully in society. We must also ensure that the social exclusion experienced by some older adults, because they lacked the ability to operate digital devices, during the health restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, are not repeated.

As we can see, the implications of educational gerontechnology reach far beyond the classroom: they have significant implications for practice, research, and public policy. By creating effective educational programs for digital inclusion, we can empower older adults to learn new skills and improve their quality of life. Research in this field can provide valuable insights into the experience of technology use amongst this population, and public policy can support the development and implementation of these programs.

Educational gerontechnology is a dynamic area of growth which is becoming more important as our population ages and as technology advances. Let's work together to ensure that older adults can benefit from the digital age.

About the Author 

Javiera Rosell is an academic visitor at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. She is a professor of Psychology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) and a member of the Center for Age and Aging Studies at the same university. Additionally, she is a postdoctoral researcher at the Millennium Institute for Care Research.

Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

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