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Bringing generations together through technology

Jefferson High School senior Will Sieling helped Alexandria's Bee Covel learn a new computer skill. (Photo by Caroline Roers)1 / 2
JHS senior Ellen Lanman (right) helped senior Roger Riley (left) with a computer lesson at a recent class. (Contributed Photo)2 / 2

With communication moving away from letters, telephone calls, and face-to-face contact, understanding technology has become a vital skill.

While this is a skill often easily picked up by today's youth, it sometimes proves more challenging for the older population.

"I feel like an orphan," said Alexandria's Romayne Strand. "People ask me if I have e-mail, and when I tell them I don't, they say, 'Well, I guess I'll have to send you a letter then, or give you a phone call'."

Staff and student volunteers from Jefferson High School (JHS) in Alexandria are working hard to help the older population gain the knowledge and skills necessary to communicate in today's world.

"In this technological age, computer skills are important, especially to communicate with one another," noted JHS senior, Will Sieling.

In January 2011, the Alexandria Area Adult Basic Education program received a grant to teach a community computer class for seniors for one year. There were about 100 participants.

"There are many people in rural communities who don't have access to the Internet and if they do, they may not have the computer skills to know how to use it," said Lynn Ransom, JHS Youth Service coordinator. "This is why we felt we needed to continue this program. To teach seniors to use computers, especially so they are able to communicate with their grandchildren and relatives who may be living elsewhere."

The grant ended on January 31, 2012.

"Because Community Education couldn't continue teaching this class, we began wondering if we could get high school students to teach a class to senior citizens," Ransom said.

After sharing her idea with JHS teacher Wendy Watts and members of the National Honor Society (NHS), Ransom was granted use of the JHS technology labs and had six student volunteers.

The computer classes, sponsored by Community Education, are held every Monday for eight weeks in the JHS technology labs. Currently, 23 senior citizens participate in the program, and there is a waiting list.

The overall goal of the program is to teach senior citizens the fundamentals of the computer.

"This is basic, independent computer training," Ransom said. "It teaches the basics of how to get started."

The lessons used at the classes were created through a U.S. Department of Commerce Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant and can be used by anyone in the public (see side bar).

The interactive tutorial offers lessons that are done online while listening to instructions on headphones. Student volunteers are available during the class to help when needed or to further explain some of the skills.

Because the lessons are done independently, seniors can go as fast or slow as they want.

"This program is nice because you can go back and review the information, too," said Roger Riley of Alexandria, a participant in the class.

By understanding the fundamentals, seniors will be able to communicate with their grandchildren through e-mail, Skype and Facebook. The main skills outlined by the class are basic computer, Internet, e-mail and Windows.

Because the majority of people coming into the program have little computer background, the class begins with the fundamentals, like how to turn on a computer and hold a mouse.

"I've had a computer in my house for five years and I never used it," said Strand. "People came over and they would give me directions of how to use it - but it would never work. I must have pressed a wrong button."

Seniors who already know the basics can learn computer shortcuts and gain a more sturdy foundation for using a computer.

"I want to e-mail - I hope to be able to leave this class with the knowledge of how to do that," Riley said.

Besides computer skills, the classes help senior citizens and high school students gain a new respect and perspective of one another.

"I believe in intergenerational opportunities and I don't think we have enough of them," Ransom noted. "Senior citizens have a lot of experiences and knowledge to teach younger people, but younger people have a lot to teach older people as well."

Spending two hours every Monday together provides an abundance of opportunities for seniors and high school students to interact.

"The biggest thing they have taught me is that I don't have to worry about everything I am doing for the future. Instead, I should live in the moment," said JHS senior Serena Stoeck.

The class brings generations together to find common interests - from similar names to hearing personal stories from the war - both generations learn from one another.

"I have had a great time getting to know these senior citizens - they have had amazing lives and they have stories to share," Sieling said.

According to Ransom, the program has definitely proved invaluable, but more volunteers are needed to keep it running.

"I want to keep this class going," she said. "We need to find more volunteers. There is a time commitment, but the need is there. The great thing about Community Education is that if there is a need, we try to fulfill it."

Ransom says the goal is also to expand the lessons to add other computer skills such as word processing.

"Learning something new taught the seniors that just because they are from the older generation doesn't mean they can't do what this generation does," Stoeck concluded.

Take the Class

The Blandin Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communications digital literacy training program is a series of computer lessons created from a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The goal of the lessons is to promote digital literacy training throughout Minnesota. The lessons are available for public use online at For information on local classes, call Community Education at (320) 762-3310.