UK project Sus-IT supports digital engagement in older people

As part of a UK project aimed to promote the use of digital technology among older people, UK researchers have identified ways of overcoming barriers to digital inclusion and fostering seniors to get (and remain) on-line, which can be summed up into one formula:

H (Hook) + E (Encouragement) + S (Support) = digital engagement.

Getting on-line, staying on-line: Digital Engagement in older people

Society in Europe is changing; we are all living longer and increasingly living our lives on-line. Many benefits can only be accessed on-line, on-line banking, utility payments and shopping offers bargains and many people use the internet for communication and social interaction.  
But what happens if you are an older person who isn’t on-line? How do you get on-line? And, more importantly, how do you stay on-line? Professor Leela Damodaran and Dr Wendy Olphert of Loughborough University and colleagues from seven other UK Higher Education Institutions in the United Kingdom have spent the past four years working with over 1000 older on a project called Sus-IT to explore that very question and the team has come up with some very interesting findings.

There has been a great deal of emphasis lately on getting people online, both in the UK and across Europe. But persuading those of us who are older to go online may be easy compared with keeping us there long-term, because we can face barriers which can quickly erode our confidence. These include:

  • physical changes: e.g. eyesight, hand dexterity, mobility
  • psychological and cognitive changes: e.g. confidence, memory
  • social changes: losing social support e.g. family members moving away
  • technology changes: e.g. new versions of familiar things

In 2004, the UK Government’s Digital Inclusion Panel warned of a real medium-term risk that significantly more citizens will migrate from being digitally engaged to being disengaged than the other way round (Digital Inclusion Panel report 2004, p.79). Since the report, evidence of this migration is growing. Keeping older people digitally engaged has wide-ranging benefits to them. It also reduces the call on public services (cost savings) and opens up a market for online commerce, entertainment and communication. Added to this, as younger people who have used digital technologies as an integral part of their lives become older or impaired in some way, they will still expect to enjoy the social and economic benefits of digital engagement. They will demand it as a basic right.

This issue is not being tackled, except for some notable local projects. There is already strong investment in the UK in bringing older people through the ‘entry barrier’ to become internet users (e.g. Digital Unite’s annual Spring Online campaign, Race Online, Go-On, Silver Surfers, ITea & Biscuits, and so on). But keeping people engaged relies on projects and initiatives often with unstable or short-term funding regimes, fragmented efforts and goodwill. An important finding is that many older people prefer to learn new skills in an informal social setting, rather than a class-room setting, that provides accessible, readily-available ICT support and that enables them to live their lives to the full. Further, people are motivated to learn new skills when they find them rewarding because they enable them to pursue their passions and interests, such as researching a family tree or taking part in a local history project.

One of the common myths about older people and the internet is that a silver bullet has yet to be found to get older people on-line. However, the Sus-IT team has shown that a highly successful formula already exists; H+E+S = digital engagement.

H - Hooks - compelling reasons related to an individual interests needs and passions to use the internet. It might be contacting old school friends, it might be keeping up with the grandchildren in Australia; it might be as varied as the interests; needs and passion of younger people. 
E - Encouragement and companionship for learning through skills-sharing in a relaxed, non-threatening context. Learning at a pace that suits the individuals; learning in a place that welcomes the individual. 
S - Support e.g. guidance and frequent reminders on what to do and trouble-shooting assistance on an on-going basis when problems arise. The sort of support that younger people in the workplace take for granted.

So there it is. Find the Hooks, give the Encouragement, provide the Support and more of us oldies will get on-line and stay on-line – because it is fun and because we experience and appreciate the benefits – not because we are compelled to do so by fear and threats about how we will lose out if we are not online.   

Article written by Mary W Craig, Policy Liaison MMP, OPENspace, University of Edinburgh, 18 April 2014

Project website: www.sus-it.lboro.ac.uk/index.html 

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