Aging Research during a Pandemic

We live in an aging society – with increasing longevity and improvements of care, globally, people live longer. However, a longer life does not automatically mean a more satisfied life. Many older adults suffer from an increasing isolation, lack of caring (both professional and personal) relationships. Digital technologies hold the potential to overcome some of these challenges, however currently also introduce a range of problems for this particular population. That is mainly because the new digital tools also require many older adults to learn a completely new set of skills connected to digital literacy. It is not hence strange that CSCW has increasingly become interested in this growing problem – after all, it is work to make the digital tools work for oneself (and not the other way round). 

In this small series of posts, I introduce the different challenges that we faced when we chose to go online with older adults. More specifically I tackle the different aspects of working with the older adults when using Zoom within a participatory design project, namely the issue of digital ecologies, the issue of scaffolding, and the issue of self-directed learning; as well as will scratch out some of the solutions, both more specific such as didactic prototypes or broader visions such as meta-design space for older adults. Some of results are already published in the following text: Making online participatory design work: Understanding the digital ecologies of older adults.

Aging research in CSCW often takes place in the form of hands-on activities, where people come together in a room and together can make things, write on papers, show to each other what they do with different digital devices. However, the aging research during the past two years has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemics, where older adults were often viewed as one of the most vulnerable populations. In combination with the spreading of COVID-19 is connected to in-person contact, it became crucial for us as CSCW and HCI researchers to explore methods which help us to keep on working and co-creating together with the older adults without actually meeting them in person.

we had to make a choice – either to stop with our activities or rethink them and move them online

We have addressed this challenge in our project ACCESS. Project ACCESS is an interdisciplinary and multinational project which focuses on fostering older adults’ digital literacy. The project is coordinated by Ass. Prof. Claudia Müller (group IT for the Aging society) from the Information systems and New Media department (University of Siegen). The more specific subproject which is presented in this blog post focuses more specifically on how to support the learning of older adults to use digital technologies through their involvement in participatory design process. A result of the project is a mobile demo-kit, which aims to provide learning resources to older adults and other relevant stakeholders about the experience and learning to use digital technologies. Current state of the demokit can be found here

Practically, we have planned to organize a series of workshops, during which we wanted to together with the older participants explore a range of off-the-shelves technologies and how to use them. Our twenty participants come both from a local senior computer club and previous projects. They are a very heterogeneous group: they differ in age (65 to 88), digital literacy but also motivation to join our project. During our first session in person, we established a Telegram group (a messenger application), which we used to coordinate with the group.

However, as the pandemic progressed, we had to make a choice – either to stop with our activities or rethink them and move them online. In line with our action-oriented approach, we have chosen the later. We have tested several tools with the groups of our participants and ended up using Zoom. The choice of the tools (and any tools used later on) have been steered by the main goals of the project – to enable older adults to become more autonomous when it comes to using the digital tools in their daily lives. Hence, a lot of hands-on and collaborative exploration as an approach has been used as a way to foster self-directed learning of our older participants. However, that was not a simple task – none of our older participants knew how to use Zoom and we also had no previous experience on how to appropriately support them.

The first sessions were intense – the way Zoom is designed did not match the way our older participants were used to interacting with each other and we all had to learn a new way how to talk and listen to each other just so that communication with each other is possible. 

About the ACCESS project. ACCESS project is an interdisciplinary and multinational EU project, funded by the JPI “More years better lives”. The project aims at fostering digital literacy of older adults by combining the perspective of lifelong learning of older people with technologies that meaningfully support everyday life. More information here

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Katka Cerna, PhD, is a researcher interested in learning and participatory design currently within the sustainability area. She uses ethnographic and participatory approaches to understand learning and design to enable people to take the actions they need in the more-than-human world.

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