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Minimizing the digitial divide and the inter-generation gap

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue September, September 1 - September 30, 2001 | BY Edna Aphek 

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Minimizing the Digital Divide and the Inter-Generation Gap
By Edna Aphek


Children tutor seniors at computer and Internet skills and get a lesson in history.



Today's information oriented society places much emphasis on new and changing technologies. In such a world the past loses its importance. The voices of past knowledge and experience become obsolete and the chasm between generations becomes insurmountable.

New technologies have created a situation rather unknown in human history wherein young children master a skill much needed by adults in general, and seniors in particular. In the new high-tech world, where children speak the language of the information technologies as their mother tongue, it seems fitting to put their mastery to good use and train them to teach this new language to senior citizens unacquainted with the language of the computer and the Internet.

Precious knowledge is stored in the heads of senior citizens. Many seniors are "walking treasures" of history, folk art and music about to disappear. This paper describes a project that combines the vast experience and knowledge of seniors with the mastery of computer and Internet skills of children, thus fostering new social interactions and minimizing the generation and digital divide.

Project History

The project started in 1998 at the Alon school in Mate Yehuda, Israel. In this program, children ages 9-13 tutor seniors at computer and Internet skills, and together, the young teachers and their old learners write an electronic book describing a chapter in the personal history of the senior tutee. The element of reciprocity, wherein children tutor the seniors at computer and information technology skills and learn from the seniors about the past, is a key element in the project.

The Alon model, developed in light of our work in 1998-2001 is a tri-stage model: Preparation, the activity itself and summary (evaluation and assessment).

The learners and young teachers met once a week for three consecutive hours. They spent five weeks tutoring the seniors at computer and Internet skills and five weeks writing together an e-book, a computerized version of a chapter in the personal history of the senior. The writing stage involves searching the Internet, encyclopedias and books, scanning pictures, documents and art work connected to the seniors' past history, and recording what went on in the session by both the young teacher and his/her tutee. Each session ends with a discussion with all the participants as to their feelings and suggestions for improving the process.

Sample Material

A key issue in the program is the co-writing of a "mini e-book," based on a chapter in the personal histories of the participating seniors. All the seniors who participated in the project this year wrote "mini e-books" based on their past history. Most chose stories connected to major events in their lives. The children learned history from living resources. They were fascinated and captivated by the personal element of the stories and at times ecstatic about their new role as "history writer."

The following is an excerpt from one of the e-books:

Chapter 1: The Nurse

Jerusalem, 1936. It's the time of the Meoraot: shootings and acts of terror. We live in a southern neighborhood, not far from Beit Zafafa. My mother went to a hospital in the city (Jerusalem) to have me delivered. In light of the shooting, getting to Hadassa Hospital on Mount Scopus was impossible. A maternity ward was set up in the center of the city, and there I was born -- Mazal Tov ("Congratulations" -- Hebrew). Fifteen minutes after my mother gave birth to me -- a redheaded baby girl -- a terrorist's head appeared in the window. My mother panicked. Her hands were paralyzed. . . .


Participant's Comments

About halfway through the project this year, we held a special meeting where we recorded comments from the learners and teachers comments.

Here are some of the comments and suggestions from the older learners:

-- "My intellectual abilities aren't as good as they used to be. I am learning sort of slowly. Because of these meetings my understanding is getting better. My teacher (5th grader) has much patience. She "opened my head" (a Hebrew expression meaning she "got my brains working"). Though I don't own a computer, I know now how to digest it." (J, .age 75)

-- "I find it so very interesting learning about how 'my teacher' perceives me. His perception of me is of a totally different dimension. I would like to get a written summary of the work we have done in the Internet. Right now I am so absorbed in writing my story that I can't concentrate on Internet skills." (Z. age 65+)

-- "I enjoy so much the story I am typing. The very fact that I discovered that I can type . . . what a discovery!( A., age 70+)

-- "I feel I have joined the Global Village. This is a great feeling. Now it's all up to me, no more excuses. When I watch the TV and see WWW written I don't fret. Now I have to teach my wife." (Sh. age 70+)

And here are some comments from our young teachers:

-- "Today we concentrated on her personal history. We wrote it using PowerPoint. It's so very interesting as if one was reading a thriller. I wanted to know more and more. She is using terms and words I have never heard and when I ask her what they mean, she says, "wait" [and thus suspension is built]. I am right-handed and she is left-handed. She keeps moving everything to the left side and I keep moving things to the right side. In short we are having a great time." (6th grader)

-- "I learnt a lot from R's story. I learnt things I never knew about Israel's war of independence. I never knew that the Kibbutz' children had to be evacuated. Writing together was most interesting." (6th grader)

-- "It has been really great. His story . . . how his parents came here . . . very interesting . . . I also learnt about myself." (5th grader)

-- "Sh. really knows a lot. I think he could really teach his wife. (5th grader)

Debunking Prejudice

The work of the children with the seniors helps debunk unfounded myth and prejudice. The Israeli society is a very torn society. It's torn between religious and non-religious Jews, Jews and non-Jews, Ashkenazi and Sepharadic Jews, young and old, and the very young ones and seniors. In such a deep situation of rift and alienation, there is a danger that each party will close itself to the other parties, become intolerant and prejudiced of others. Volunteering and giving to other segments in the population helps mend the rift and prevent the growth of prejudices. Getting to know the other through giving and receiving creates a common denominator and a real dialogue as well as debunks prejudices.

We asked the "young teachers" what they thought about the senior citizens prior to working with them and how their view of the seniors changed in light of their work. Here are some of their comments:

-- "I thought seniors aren't interested in the same things I am. I found that they are. Both Sh. and myself are into mysticism and baking." (8th grader).

-- "We share the same areas of interest: We enjoyed surfing the Internet and reading material we searched. I thought all seniors were interested in is knitting." (5th grader)

-- "I thought they were terribly boring. But they aren't. They can work a computer." (6th grader)

We wanted to learn from the seniors whether there was any advantage in learning computer and Internet skills from young children, or if it was just a nice gimmick. Here's what our "old learners" had to say about the advantages of having children as tutors.

-- "It's easier to open up to children."

-- "If we were to be tutored by a trained teacher I would not come. The spontaneity of the children . . . their flow . . . these are great things . . . but it also has its disadvantages. The children aren't that skilled in clarifying concepts. But this adds interest and fun. Besides, there are always two trained teachers (grown ups) supervising the whole operation, so if there is a need we could always ask for their help."

-- "There is much tenderness in the young child. I feel so relaxed working with a young child. I don't fret when I make a mistake. I tell my "young teacher" I don't know and the child simply accepts it."

Difficulties Encountered

Even though on the whole the program was very successful we encountered a few difficulties:

-- Tiredness on the part of the young teachers.

-- Over familiarity. The meetings between the very old and the very young brought forth an atmosphere of closeness and familiarity. It so happens that after some time a youngster or two misconstrued this "family atmosphere" and forgot their manners, using too familiar language.

-- Less structured method of teaching and the ability to clarify concepts and terms. The "young teachers "had some difficulty explaining and clarifying terms and concepts. Doing rather than speaking and explaining is the youngsters' strong point. Related to that is the pace at which the youngsters taught. Very often they went over the material too fast and had difficulty restraining themselves.

-- Meaningful reflective processes. The young teachers had some difficulty fully understanding the reflective process and its importance. Very often they resorted to summarizing what was taught or learned instead of describing inner processes they underwent.

Summary and Discussion

When a new technology becomes prevalent it brings about many changes: changes in ways of thinking, in methods and tools for thinking and in social processes and structures. We often hear that the new information technologies are responsible for the digital divide and as such increase the ever widening gaps in society. This paper describes the opportunity to minimize the gaps in society by using these very technologies. I maintain that mindful use of IT, based upon a value oriented pedagogic approach focusing upon volunteering, cooperation and the acceptance of others, will give us the tools to bridge societal gaps, create new caring communities and establish innovative models of closeness as opposed to individualism and alienation.

A good program is one in which people are both giving and receiving. Both parties, children and seniors, function both as teachers and as learners. The children tutor the seniors at computer and Internet skills and the seniors teach the young ones a lesson in history. The children and the seniors write together a computerized chapter based on the personal history of the senior tutored. Together they surfed the Internet in their quest for information; together they scanned pictures from albums and document archives related to the senior's life story. The seniors don't function only as receivers of technological skills mastered by the young ones, but they are also contributors to the "young teachers" from their vast knowledge and experience.

When we started the project in 1998 we thought that the main beneficiaries from the project would be the seniors: they would be tutored at computer and Internet skills. For the first two years (1998-2000) we limited the scope of the program to teaching by the children of these aforementioned skills. After the first two years we realized how much the children could gain from this program and we expanded its scope to include a lesson in history and a lesson in reciprocity.

A folk saying maintains, and I am quoting rather freely, that when an old person dies, an entire library is set on fire. In this program libraries are saved and the young children become the curators of libraries endangered.

This paper describes an ongoing program initiated by Prof. Edna Aphek (aphekdr@netvision.net.il) and carried out at the Alon School in MateYehudaI in Israel. In 2000-2001 the program also was carried out at the Bar Lev school in Kfar Saba under the supervision and guidance of Dorit Bachar.

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