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People Making Changes Issue 36 - Senior Citizens Become Computer Literate
Dorothy - 18/7/98

SeniorNet Canterbury Incorporated. An interview with Robert Britten, Chairman of the group, and other members.

How do most senior citizens view computers?
So many senior citizens feel inadequate in the company of younger family

Robert Britten assists Chris Clarke who is entering a list of names and
addresses into a database.
Robert Britten assists Chris Clarke who is entering a list of names and addresses into a database.
members and friends because they know nothing about computers. Some declare that they don't want to know anything about "this new-fangled machine that is replacing people in the work force and is having a bad influence on the young". Others wish they could learn how to use a computer but feel that at a class at night school they would feel very inferior and might not keep up with younger people.

SeniorNet offers truly appropriate computer training for senior citizens
The motivation for the formation of SeniorNet groups is the effectiveness of peer training at your own pace.

In SeniorNet groups senior citizens with computer skills tutor their peers. This is clearly the most effective way of learning for a senior citizen. This was borne out in research done by Mary Furlong at the University of San Francisco investigating whether modern technology can benefit old people in improving the quality of life.

SeniorNet groups have been operating since 1986 in the US where there are now some twenty autonomous active branches. The first New Zealand group opened in Wellington in 1992.

SeniorNet Canterbury - The Christchurch Press leads the way
It all began in the computer pages in the Press - a regular feature edited by David Armstrong every Tuesday. At the end of September 1995 the section led with an article on the possibility of SeniorNet coming to Christchurch.

Age Concern hosted a public meeting with an attendance of more than sixty people and at a subsequent meeting a steering committee was elected.

Group incorporated and facilities organised
They had to organise a place to meet and equipment to use. A room was leased at the Shirley Community Centre. The group was incorporated before Christmas and without any advertising members were joining. In February a meeting of members elected an executive in keeping with the constitution. They were given furniture from banks that were closing and renovated trade-in computers from DEC. Telecom provided funding for rent and two free phone lines. On 1 April tutoring began.

Increasing membership and full classes
From the opening membership of a hundred the list has now risen to over 400. Two-hour classes in four-week blocks have been offered twice a day, morning and afternoon, on all weekdays except Thursday, which is left free for general meetings, workshops and seminars. The calendar is full till mid-August and there is a waiting list. Now the timetable is being reorganised to fit in classes in the lunch hour.

Skills taught
A wide range of skills is taught from beginner classes, for those who have had no contact with computers, through word processing to use of the Internet and desktop publishing. Word processing is taught in two four- week blocks with time between for practice on the skills learnt in Part 1.

Courses on using genealogy software are very popular. Databases and spreadsheets are taught on demand, but these are areas of lesser interest to most members.

At each class two tutors work with a maximum of six students. Thirty two tutors are working at present, but more would be welcomed.

Technical support
Technical support is provided for the members, with two experienced technicians and another in training.

Workshops and seminars are run on some Thursdays, and on the third Thursday of each month there is a social function, usually with a speaker on a topic relevant to the members. They were delighted by a talk from David Armstrong of the Press.

The annual fee for membership at present (June 1998) is $30.00 for one person and $50.00 for two in one family. (Relationships are viewed in a very broad sense.) The reduction for two is based on the saving in postage costs. In the first twelve months there is the option of an introductory course FREE. Other courses are charged to meet expenses such as rent, power, etc.

Why and how do people come to SeniorNet?
Widely different backgrounds and current interests draw people to SeniorNet. Robert Britten is deeply involved, being chairman of the society, a tutor, and at present also contact person for membership. What drew him to the computers and to SeniorNet?

Communication always a dominant interest in Robert's life
Robert has been employed in varied jobs, about half related to communication. He trained as a wireless mechanic and then a radar mechanic in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He worked for the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department as an exchange operator, then a mechanician in the automatic telephone exchange, and later with a fire alarm company. For ten years he looked after all the traffic lights in Canterbury, and led the team installing signal equipment for the first one-way streets in Christchurch.

Interest in the novels of Dornford Yates led Robert to the computer
Yates was a prolific writer of light romantic thrillers, which Robert greatly enjoyed. Intrigued by the range of characters reappearing in different places he began cataloguing the proper nouns. After collecting some 1200 identities he realised that this was going to expand to over four thousand. Some mechanical aid was essential.

He had been introduced to PCs at work and became intrigued with this medium. In 1988 he bought his first computer - an Acer 500 plus - equivalent to an XT. With the manual and some software he explored it alone for a year before joining the PC Users Group. In this all-ages group he received encouragement and support, and later took office.

He read with great interest about the formation of SeniorNet and became a foundation member.

Ian Hunter encountered computers first through engineering
In the early 80's Ian became fascinated with the capabilities of programmable calculators doing repetitive or iterative engineering calculations and used both RPN(reverse polish notation) and 'BASIC'. He graduated to a System 80 (a TRS80 clone), then an Osborne CP/M luggable machine with 64kb ram and 2 /90kb floppy disc drives, a BASIC interpreter, and his first Pascal compiler. During the early 80's he had access to a PDP at work, and its BASIC interpreter was available for engineering calculations.

Around 1986, he bought his first IBM compatible. 640kb, 2 /360kb drives and 640 kb memory. He bought a copy of Turbo Pascal 3 for this m/c and here his love affair with structured Pascal programming became entrenched. He translated a lot of his BASIC code into Pascal. A few years later, he bought his first Hard-disk(20mb) system, an 80286 AT.

He retired in 1989. Since then he has bought several new computers and 6 successive Pascal compilers, introducing such concepts as Object oriented programming, and Windows 95 programming, using 'Delphi'. He also experimented with C and C++, but found them too error-prone.

He joined SeniorNet in April 96. and quickly got involved in tutoring - introductory classes using MSWorks 3 and windows 3.11, an MSWorks database class, some file and desktop management classes. He also looked after the membership list for a year using Foxpro inter alia.

The power and capacity of his current three month old machine (including his first modem) are far greater than his first machines. He spends a lot more time designing the interfaces, but still often uses ten year old algorithms and code snippets to 'do the sums'.

Pam Higgins wanted to expand her limited computer knowledge
Pan was a busy schoolteacher who was part of the management team in a Christchurch secondary school. For this work she made a little use of the computer entering records of pupils' work and attendance. This she describes as "bitty computer involvement". When she retired two years ago she and her husband bought their own computer, partly because he did not want her to be bored in retirement and partly to keep up with grandchildren who were "astonishingly computer literate".

Pam joined SeniorNet to learn how to use the new computer and greatly enjoyed it. She finds that her computer activities keep her very busy. She is now on the Executive Committee with responsibility for organising the courses - an appropriate role for an ex-teacher with management experience. She finds the group very well organised as skilled business people are prepared to use their expertise for the group.

Pauline Hughes was drawn to SeniorNet by her interest in genealogy
Pauline was formerly a registered nurse and registered midwife and later a secondary schoolteacher. In her retirement as she worked on her family tree she thought, "That thing called a computer would probably help." With advice from a nephew - the only person she knew who was computer literate - she bought a computer and for two months struggled to master it on her own. She was afraid she might damage her expensive new purchase. She grew bolder, but still had problems. Then she saw the advertisement for SeniorNet. She was put on the committee and given a four week crash course to give her the computer skills needed for her to be an assistant tutor. In addition she was asked to be the course coordinator, arranging classes and tutors and helping prepare class notes.

Now she is tutoring groups and enjoying "the wonderful spirit of friendship - caring, sharing and giving" that she finds among the members of Seniornet. She wants to give back to others what SeniorNet has given her.

The genealogy course has greatly helped with her family tree. She uses software called "Cumberland Family Tree" - shareware which cost her NZ$80.00. She is enjoying exploring the Internet and email contacts which have led to sharing a lot of genealogical information. She feels that she has leapt into the twenty first century.

Her first computer was an IBM compatible 486 and at that time she said, "And I won't be UPGRADING!" She has just bought a Kaiyo Pentium IBM compatible!

If you are a senior citizen interested in computer skills whatever stage you are at you will find someone else there who identifies with your needs.

Contact SeniorNet Canterbury Incorporated
Phone: (03) 3849856 (to join)

Update June 2000
In the two years since I interviewed Robert Britten and wrote about SeniorNet Canterbury, interest in using computers, emailing and exploring the Internet has greatly increased.

The membership of SeniorNet Canterbury has increased from 400 to over 1200, making it the largest SeniorNet group in New Zealand. The annual membership fee is $25.00.

Two new organisations, SeniorNet Garden City, which is based in Hornby on the west side of Christchurch, and SeniorNet North Canterbury, which is based in Kaiapoi have relieved the pressure on SeniorNet Canterbury. These groups are totally independent. Others are in the pipeline including a SeniorNet at New Brighton.

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