Seven Tips for Teaching Tech to Older Learners

(for when you have to use online tools to teach about using online tools.)

by Monique Bouchard, CourseStorm

It used to be that the biggest barrier for an adult learner was finding the class. As many programs move online, new challenges have arisen for some learners, including using new technology to access education and community. 

We recently received the following question, “We cater to many senior citizens who have trouble with the whole concept of online classes. They can’t sign on…what can we do to enable them to partake in all that we are offering?”  Given the value in both the educational content and the ability to connect with other people, it’s worth going the distance to help less tech-savvy older learners have successful online experiences. 

CourseStorm’s Chris Suggs, who taught basic computing to older adults as an AmeriCorps volunteer, helped identify seven things your program can do to get senior learners who aren’t comfortable with technology connected.

1. Start with what students have been able to do in the past.

Start with email. “If you know that your students can open an email, that’s a start,” advises Chris. Using well-known tools, like email, before introducing new ones, like video, can help build confidence. 

Use email to share content (like a how-to video) to help get your students online. And keep it simple — provide an active link in your email rather than a link that must be copied and pasted. Email students class handouts rather than having them download files from elsewhere.

2. Go for ease, usability, and familiarity!

No matter what platform you choose, it must work for your participants! Consider starting with tools that are accessible, easy to use, and familiar to your class participants. 

If you know learners have used Facebook Live or YouTube, consider using one of those services to present your class, rather than a more complex system. A live-streamed or recorded video accessed with a link is always easier to use than a service that requires a student to log in.

3. Choose and use specific software.

Consistency is helpful for all learners, no matter their age. “How many platforms can people have?” says Chris. “If you have multiple teachers using a variety of platforms in your program —Zoom, WebEx, Google Meets—or something else – there’s potentially a lot to learn about!” 

Choosing one tool to use will make life much easier for your students (and probably for you too). This allows you to learn enough about the selected software to help students with tech questions. 

You should be familiar with the product you’re using. You don’t need to be an expert, but you do need to know where you can find help. Fortunately, most software providers understand that people need accessible, straightforward instructions to get started. Yours will have helpful how-to articles and video tutorials you can send to your students, giving them a chance to become familiar with the tools before classes begin. (For example, Zoom’s video tutorials are a perfect blend of brief and detailed.)

4. Provide introductory lessons before class starts.

If your student community is unfamiliar with the tools you’re using, you may need to provide them with some foundational lessons. The first class of the session might even be devoted entirely to getting to know each other and the programs you’ll all use. If your learning platform is unfamiliar to most of your learners, introduce it using a more common program, like YouTube or even Facebook Live. 

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” Chris notes. He suggests being ready to ask some of the questions people may not think to ask, like, “What happens if I get disconnected? How do I rejoin?” Students also need to know how they can ask questions during class, access handouts or other materials, and communicate with each other. Encourage students to write the instructions down for reference. 

5. Make those classes a little smaller.

You can provide additional support to your students if your classes are smaller.

If your audience is not very tech-savvy, your program may need to help struggling students a little more, at least at first. Build in time for troubleshooting and patient explanations. If you can build one-on-one check-ins early on, it can make a big difference for your learners. All of these are easier to manage with a smaller class.

Says Chris, “There’s a world of difference between ‘I will call you’ and ‘here’s a link where you can log in,’ and it may be easier to start with you reaching out first.” A small class can let that happen more gracefully.

Review important features at the start of each class like how to mute mics, ask questions, and how to see the instructor’s view. This small activity will help everyone stay comfortably connected. And, regardless of your class size, you may want to partner less-confident learners with knowledgable peers who can help them during the class.

6. Offer free tech “how-to” classes as a community service.

Many community education organizations (and others) have found that offering a few free classes has helped boost their overall attendance in paid classes. 

You can double the effect by providing online technology classes at no charge. This will help your learners become familiar with the tools your program uses, making learners more comfortable accessing your program offerings. 

If you have instructors using a variety of software, consider offering separate classes for each. Whether it’s “Learn the Free Zoom App” or “How Our Online Cooking Classes Work,” you’ll be providing an excellent service for your program and your learners! 

“These are opportunities to build the trust of your audience and build up your community,” notes Chris. Such classes will also increase attendees’ overall comfort and familiarity with online tools in general, and your students will benefit when they need to access telemedicine, set up a virtual family reunion…and maybe even teach a class of their own someday! 

7. Encourage your learners to explore on their own!

“Compassion is at the heart of it, and patience,” said Chris. “If there are problems, it can be important to just listen.” Online activities can offer more than just class material! They can also provide regular human contact during a time when it’s scarce. Give your students reasons to discover more online to increase their comfort with online learning and community. “There’s often a hidden need looking for a human solution,” notes Chris. 

Such opportunities may open a whole new world for older students while providing meaningful connections and social interaction. 

Now is the perfect time for older students to discover what’s online. It may take a little extra planning but it’s worth the effort to help everyone have access to your classes.