BGSU students help senior bridge the digital divide

Mike Kuhlin


BG Independent News

Kate Magsamen-Conrad was inspired to create the course to help teach seniors about technology before she arrived on the Bowling Green State University campus.

During the period of transition before starting to teach at BGSU she was home in the New York area. Given that she teaches media and communication, she was called upon to help her grandmother learn about the laptop that she’d gotten a year before and hadn’t touched.

“It was really terrible,” Magsamen-Conrad said of the experience. She realized all the knowledge and technical savvy that’s a given when learning to use these devices.  “I can’t even think about all the different steps to do things.”

Technology is everywhere, from the supermarket to the parking lot, and there’s so much potential for it to benefit elders. “But it’s underutilized … because they haven’t grown up with it and don’t have the familiarity.”

So in spring 2013 the class was launched in collaboration with the Wood County Committee on Aging and the Wood County District Public Library. The class links elders with students from small group communication and a research methods classes. Earlier this month the most recent class graduated.

Magsamen-Conrad said the class gives students a way to contribute to the community and put their learning to use in a way that matters. “This is a real human being who is going to benefit from your preparation for this assignment. I don’t think there’s a better way to improve presentation and professional skills.”

Each class has about 30 seniors in it, though one class had about 60, she said.

Many take the class several times, building on their knowledge.

Jo Zbiegien, of Fostoria, said it was the fourth time she’s taken the course. “I got so frustrated not being able to find anything I wanted to find on my cell,” she said. Then her husband got her an iPad, and all she could figure out to do was play a few games and get text messages.

Now the course has expanded her abilities.  Zbiegien has learned about the capabilities of Google and how to use GPS. That’s important, she said, because she drives a lot, and her phone is essential in case she ever needs help while on the road.

She plans to take the class again to try to figure out how to transfer all her contacts from her Android phone to the iPad.

Pam Ruffner said the course “was awesome because the students are caring and informational.”

She said she got an iPad a few years ago and needed help learning about its capabilities. “I’m not one that just goes and experiments by myself.”

She was most pleased with learning about iCloud and how to download music.

The graduation was held in the Michael and Sara Kuhlin Center, the home of the School of Media and Communication.

Mike Kuhlin served as the graduation speaker. He has witnessed and experienced the evolution of technology first hand. When he started working for the BG News as a journalism student in the mid-1960s, they used manual typewriters. An electric typewriter was a great improvement.

The 1968 graduate went on to work for Ohio Bell and stayed with the company through all the mergers and changes, so he witnessed many of the changes first hand.

The arrival of the smart phone has resulted in an “explosion” of apps. “That’s a whole new way of doing business. It puts so much at our fingerprints. Your imagination is the only thing that stops you from learning and using these applications.”

No matter what someone is interested in, there’s an app for that, he said. He talked about all the apps he uses traveling in his motor home.

“I really know from first-hand experience technology can be an overwhelming experience for senior citizens,” Kuhlin said. He’s seen that in his parents and in-laws. Some elders show no interest at all. “I understand that’s part of the aging process, I guess.”

Much of the technology available now, doesn’t interest him. “You can pick and choose and go and have fun doing it.

He said taking the technology course again is a great idea.  “If you let what you learn slide, you’re not going to go back.”

He suggested finding someone a spouse or a friend to team up with to explore the digital possibilities. Kuhlin said he has a friend who taught technology in high school. “That’s kept me on my toes.”

The BGSU students have benefited in different ways from the course, Kuhlin said. He told the elder students: “I hope you take what they’ve given you and work that your advantage. You’ll enjoy it.”