Having just returned from a vacation cruise in the Caribbean, I am having re-immersion difficulties, but maybe those difficulties have given me some new insight into effective tutoring of seniors for computer literacy. Certainly these insights have been made even more clear by the links Chris sent me to the videos of his father (a great example of a senior who would be fun to spend an afternoon with).

If you have not seen them, I suggest they are worth a visit (find my favorites so far at the bottom of this post.)

The issue that bothers me the most upon trying to get back into the swing of things is probably one that bothers most of my senior clients. Am I obsolete? What do I have to offer? Is it worth the effort? What can I do to stay fresh? Do I want to stay fresh?

These are general life questions we all face, but in tutoring, especially to seniors, they are important because your students probably ask the same questions about themselves — are they hopelessly obsolete? Effective tutoring is based on an assumption that the tutor knows more about the subject than the student, and that transferring that knowledge from one to the other is valuable to the student. If a potential student is so burned out on life that expanding goals seems useless, then jumping in to a technical exposition without first overcoming that hurdle is a useless waste of effort for both teacher and student. If learning a new skill has no appeal, the best teacher in the world will fail.

Are Seniors (This Senior) Obsolete?So the first questions I have to ask myself is whether the knowledge I have is relevant enough to attempt to pass it on to new clients. That is followed immediately be asking if the student is excited and receptive. These are issues that any senior tutor of seniors must face, but sometimes it takes the break in routine provided by a vacation to clear our minds and get beyond the daily customs.

Given that I am a senior myself, it is not unusual that I balk at learning some new things. For instance, I know perfectly well how to set up a Facebook account, but after a few months of activity, I did not see the point and stopped checking it regularly. Twitter and Linkedin are similar. They are obviously valuable to many folks, but for me the utility is not obvious. Does that doom me as a tutor of computer literacy for seniors? Should a competent tutor of computer literacy be enthusiastic andthoroughly versed in social media at this time?

In the airport I saw several groups of college students sitting on the floor in loose circles. They all had pads of various types. At least one of them seemed to have set up an ad hoc hot spot Wi-Fi that they shared. None of them had a normal laptop. My students are not like those young people. My students typically own a single desktop or traditional laptop computer and do not set up wireless hot spots. Those college students in the airport had a different idea of what constitutes computer literacy than either I or my students. Although I did not ask them, they probably were all active social media users.

What constitutes meaningful tutoring in computer literacy changes on times fast compared to other topics like calculus or geometry. After twenty years of dormancy, I could easily teach an introductory course in mathematics or physics, which are usually considered difficult courses, but if I were to take off only two years from computer-based activity, my knowledge would have depreciated considerably upon return. Re-emersion would be a challenge, but possible, because I have spent most of my life evolving along with computers. For someone who has lived a life without computer-based activity, jumping from one level of technology to a higher one is much more difficult. With rather little effort, I could join the circle of friends on the floor of an airport and logon with their ad hoc hot spot. The same freedom is not available to seniors who struggle with transferring from Windows XP to Windows 7. Jumping to a system without a physical keyboard would be essentially starting from scratch for some of them.

That is the challenge in spades that seniors still have in belatedly achieving computer literacy. The knowledge they accumulated over their life is valuable because it becomes obsolete more slowly than a human lifetime. A human can accumulate knowledge and store it. That is not the case with high tech. The underlying mathematics and physics and even computer science does not change, but the expression of technology in ever more useful tools, both hardware and software changes at a pace that prevents a slower person from following. Basically we get on the raising curve at some point try to hang on while it sky-rockets. The knowledge that I earned last year in useful applications if not as valuable as the knowledge I learned thirty or forty years ago. Is there a way out of this spiraling dilemma?

Yes, there is. First we have to realize that our expectations have risen even more quickly than the technology has been able to deliver. Humans are very adaptable in that sense. Our phones now routinely do more than super computers could a generation ago and still we complain about them. That is the way it always happens. We extrapolate from what we had in the past and what we have now to demand even better things — without necessarily understanding or caring about the limitations of the underlying technology.

That complaining is good. It shows that we understand a situation enough to want it to be better. A tutor is well-advised to listen carefully to the nature of a student’s complaints. They can help him distinguish between complaining because of lack of understanding and complaining because of an awakening of understanding. Even if I am obsolete, I am learning and complaining. I have something to offer.

Armed with that realization, I can return to the fray and face students.