Bridging the Digital Literary Gap is Essential for Equity in Aging

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Many older adults do not have the tech skills needed to compete in an increasingly tech-driven economy. However, the myth that older adults are "not able to learn technology" is just that—a myth. Older adults invented much of today’s technology, from computers to the internet! And since digital literacy skills became essential for work and everyday life during the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults have taken advantage of new learning platforms and proved they can learn them when they are taught in a way customised to their needs. Now is the time to bring technology to the entire aging population. By 2060, over 25% of the United States population is expected to be over 50, so this need isn't going away; in fact, it’s increasing.

Older adults can learn technology, but it needs to be adapted for them and made accessible, and that’s just not happening for most older adults.

Becky Riley is a GetSetUp Ambassador, based in Houston TX, who has helped to lead interest groups, and regularly participates in classes and events. Photo: Robert Riley

Digital Literacy Hurdles for Older Adults

  • Many older adults lack connected devices and internet access: devices can often be too expensive for those on limited incomes, and internet connectivity packages often do not consider the needs and uses of this demographic
  • Most tech gurus at stores, online or on help lines are young people using unfamiliar terms or speeding through explanations
  • Many organisations and companies think that older adults can just find answers by searching their site, Google or YouTube, but this assumes a basic level of tech proficiency already exists

While the barriers are high, it’s critical that older adults attain digital literacy and get connected if they are to stay relevant, employable and engaged in their local communities. They need empowering learning opportunities, not ones that make them feel overwhelmed, ignorant or helpless.

Read the report "The potential of online learning for adults: Early lessons from the COVID-19 crisis" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

Older Adults Learn Best from Peers

As digital literacy became a clear necessity for older adults during the pandemic, GetSetUp stepped up immediately with peer-led classes for many states across the country. Online classes, taught by retired teachers and experts, covered how to effectively use technologies from smartphones to Windows, Google Suite, LinkedIn and many others.

I can honestly say if I went to an interview and they asked me certain questions, now I’m familiar with those tools, and I wasn’t before GetSetUp classes

– GetSetUp Learner Mary Zarba

GetSetUp’s first mission was to help teachers connect to their tools. It provided over one thousand free live classes to help teachers go from in-person to virtual classrooms overnight. Many learners appreciated the ability to retake classes, ask questions and learn through doing. Having access to these skills helped to improve their lives and the lives of their students.

A. Marlene Harper shares the carrot dog she taught members of her Meatless Recipe group to make. She helps to run interest groups based on plant-based eating. Photo: LaWanda McClendon

Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services came to GetSetUp because many of their 2.4 million adults aged over 60 (24% of the state) need to earn income and stay socially connected. Michigan was looking for ways to connect and reskill this population who are spread across a diverse geography, face extreme weather challenges and often register as the highest in the state for social isolation. Michiganders were able to join GetSetUp online to take over 500 classes to help them learn tech skills, become or stay employed, gain clients and live more fulfilling and often independent lives. Multiple Michigan GetSetUp learners brought their skills to the platform and not only learned how to teach online, but also became GetSetUp Guides or volunteers to host interest groups on topics they are passionate about.

Tech Literacy has Become Critical to our Health

The problem of the digital divide goes beyond employability—it contributes to social isolation. Many older adults in rural communities or with mobility issues lack community and social connections, which leads to loneliness. A study by the University of Michigan found that older adults were feeling lonelier than ever before during the pandemic. And a 2019 study “analyzed data from more than 580,000 adults and found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from every cause for every race”.

Community-based interactive education platforms like GetSetUp help bridge the tech divide and create social connections. Access to free classes on topics ranging from cooking to wellness and gardening, as well as daily social hours, helps older adults develop skills, improve fitness, express their creativity and form new connections. Many of our learners have made friends that they now speak to regularly, or have even met up with in person. Others have met in travel classes and are planning to travel together to help save on costs. This strong social connection and improvement in health is why we are seeing strong adoption of this peer-based interactive learning model as GetSetUp works with governments, health care providers, non-profits and many other organisations working with aging adults.

Lifelong learning—and in particular learning to use technology—is critical to solving issues that limit older adults’ independence or economic opportunities, or prevent them from accessing essential resources. As GetSetUp has shown, a learning-based community of peers for older adults can help make aging more equitable and fun!

Find out more about GetSetUp, an online community of people striving to learn new skills, connect with others and unlock new life experiences

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Education & Skills Digital Inclusion


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Lawrence Kosick

Co-Founder, GetSetUp

Lawrence was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada whereas a child, Lawrence’s father founded a non-profit assisted living facility for older adults. Lawrence grew up spending nights and weekends visiting the facility and was amazed by the wisdom of the residents who had so much more to give.

Before co-founding GetSetUp, Lawrence oversaw Business Development and Partnerships for IFTTT, an IoT Connectivity Platform. He also led Sight Machine’s Asian Pacific business operations and was VP of Global Partnerships at Yahoo during its early years. Lawrence is pleased to team up with his long-time friend and co-founder Neil, to create a learning platform for older adults that allows him to continue the work his father started so many years ago. Lawrence is an avid cyclist and trail runner, so it is no surprise that the two co-founders met on the trail and continue to trade ideas that power the mission of GetSetUp and enhance the lives of today’s older adults.