On a crisp fall day in Roxbury, Lana Andrews sat down in the community room at Nuestra Comunidad for what she calls “computer class.” Beside her, Northeastern student Paula Trevino helped her open a Google Doc to use as a digital journal.
Andrews typed: Today is a beautiful day.
“I’ve wanted to know how to do this for so long,” she told Trevino.
This intergenerational tech literacy program is run three times a year by Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly. The Digital Dividends course gives older adults access to a full technology kit — including a Chromebook, internet hotspot, chargers, a mouse and a coursework book — and partners them with local college students to support participants in their learning journey.
And it’s not just digital journals. The class has helped older adults connect with loved ones over social media and FaceTime, use search engines safely, learn new languages through online applications and, of course, access digital entertainment through apps like Spotify and YouTube.
While efforts have been underway in the city to bridge the digital equity gap in Boston, the pandemic exacerbated existing digital access needs in the city.
“It really brought into high belief how profound the digital divide was and is,” said Cynthia Wilkerson, program director of Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly. While the organization, which offers a wide array of intergenerational programs, was able to move its programming online, “There wasn't support in place to help folks who were not already online.”
Digital Dividends was born out of those pandemic challenges. The program just completed its fall session operating out of nine locations, during which they distributed 83 laptops.
The intergenerational model of pairing college students with older adults also helps foster social connection between younger and older Boston residents, with a goal of increasing empathy between generations.
“Technology is something that changes throughout time, like every single day, and it's something that even we [young adults] have difficulty keeping up with,” said Trevino. “So if we don't give that knowledge to the older community, it really creates a generational gap.”
“In 2030, there'll be more people over 60 than under 18,” said Nikki Shults, executive director at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, adding that she is hopeful the program will ease generational divides.
The participants in the Digital Dividends program at Nuestra Comunidad this fall all had differing reasons for wanting to learn more about technology.
For Andrews, it was her grandchildren that motivated her digital learning journey. “All they do is make fun of me, that I don't know how to use technology,” she joked. When her grandkids come to visit, they’ll take hundreds of photos with silly filters on, like a mustache or a beard or a silly hairdo. “I'm trying to be able to beat them at their own game.”
Teresa Castro, a participant in the Spanish language class at Nuestra Comunidad, told GBH News through a translator that a lot of people told her she was too old to learn.
But she is proving them wrong.
Castro said she’s really enjoyed connecting with others through technology.
“It's extremely important because through computers you can send information to your family, your friends, your neighbors,” she said. “Little by little, one learns.”
“The important concept we try to get across is that people are always aging and technology's always progressing,” James Fuccione, the executive director at the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative, said in a Zoom interview. “No matter who reaches old age at what time, what you consider to be old age, people are always going to need support.”
There are a lot of components that go into making the Digital Dividends sessions accessible, says Program Manager Teresa Yao. Classes take place on location at public or affordable senior housing buildings so it’s easier for participants to attend. The Chromebooks are touchscreen to serve people with varying language needs. For example, Yao said some Chinese students don’t know how to type pinyin, the phonetic translation of Mandarin characters using the western alphabet. With a touchscreen, students can use an onscreen keyboard in their native language, or use a stylus to write out characters.
“We noticed with especially our Mandarin, Cantonese speakers or even Spanish, French, Haitian Creole speakers, it's really helpful to have an on-screen keyboard,” Yao said.
As long as participants continue to attend class, they get to keep all of the components of their technology kit. The only part participants have to return is the internet hotspot, but Yao works with individuals on the internet transition, helping to connect them with the city’s Affordable Connectivity program.
GBH News returned to Nuestra Comunidad a week before the semester ended to see what students had learned.
In the Spanish language class that day, two students were getting set up with Duolingo to practice other languages. Another student wanted to transfer files onto a USB drive, and Yao gave him a spare one from her backpack.
And in the English language class, Earline Wade-Garner expressed her excitement about learning how to search for places where she could have her sewing machine repaired.
“When I come into the class, I'm very happy,” said Wade-Garner. “It’s going to have changed my life.”
She plans to come back next semester.