Over the years, I have had the privilege of helping people from many different walks of life and with varying experience levels understand computers and software programs. One group that I love to teach is senior citizens. Technology is a really big deal to them, with some older users alternately fascinated by it and terrified of what it can do. Training seniors may require adjustments in your training techniques. That’s the subject of this column of training tips.
In part two of this series on training older students, we’ll examine how to get seniors started in the areas that interest them most, such as Internet access and e-mail.
First, get some background
First, I usually ask what (if any) kind of training the student has completed, such as community education classes, individual instruction, or a class at the local college. If the student has had prior training, I ask what problems they had in those classes, including questions about the pace of the class and whether they were able to keep up. It is a good idea for you to take notes to make sure you don’t repeat problems they have experienced.

I also Iook at how the older student acts around the computer. Is he or she nervous, excited, scared of breaking the machine, or relaxed and confident? These visual cues help me decide how to adjust my training style to the individual.

I also ask what books the student has purchased to help them use the computer, and we discuss how to use these books as references. Then, I sit and talk with each student about how I’m going to customize his or her training. I let the student know that learning to use a computer can be fun, but can also be difficult. I remind them that most people do not learn to drive a car in one training session, and should not expect to learn to use a computer in one sitting, either.

Finally, I ask if there was a specific reason for purchasing the computer. I try to build my first lesson around these answers because I have found that students are more willing to listen and learn if you focus on what the student wants to accomplish.

Second, narrow the scope of the training
Most older users have purchased their computer for one of a few specific reasons: Internet access, genealogy research, e-mail, or maybe writing their memoirs. They don’t have time to focus on things they don’t need. So I pinpoint what they want to learn, and don’t bother with the other things on the computer unless they are relevant. I have had customers who happily did what they wanted on their computer for several years without even opening the other software programs on it.

For instance, one student who wanted to learn how to e-mail her daughter and grandson became bogged down in a previous class when the instructor went too fast. She also “couldn’t understand the instructions the instructor was giving because they were in ‘computer language.’”

Third, simplify the setup
To get started, we look at the Internet service provider the student will be using. We choose an e-mail program that is simple to use, and then I set up the computer so that accessing the dial-up network is as easy as double-clicking an icon.

I also make sure that I separate this icon visually from the rest on the desktop. To do this, turn off the auto-arrange feature and drag the icon to the right side of the desktop screen. I also create a folder labeled “e-mail attachments and downloads” in the student’s C: directory to facilitate file management. (A good trick with this is to put an exclamation point in front of the folder name, so that no matter what folder name is chosen, it will be the first folder listed.) All of these steps are written down in the notebook that the customer will keep next to the computer, which I described in “Tips for training better users.”

Tips for setting up the machine
A few other things to consider when training older users:

  • Focus on ergonomics and make sure the computer setup is comfortable. If necessary, grab a few books to raise the monitor to the right level.
  • Make sure the person can use the mouse. If the student has physical problems, such as tremors or Parkinson’s, a trackball might be better than a standard mouse. Advise the person to change devices, or look into some of the accessibility options offered with keyboard shortcuts in Windows.
  • If the student has failing eyesight, set up the display to either black on white or white on black in the accessibility option of display.
  • Always check to see if the color, font size, and resolution settings of the monitor are best for that individual. Show the person how to change these options.
  • Set up some games on the desktop for easy access, such as solitaire, mah-jongg, or other freeware games. This easy access to games may help students not only pass the time but also have fun while learning to be more comfortable with the mouse and the computer.

As a trainer, you often settle into a comfortable routine with your classes and teaching style. What happens when you’re pushed out of this comfort zone and have to work with a different type of student? How do you adjust to teaching a group of young learners or a group of mature students? Send us an e-mail and tell us how you adapt and change your presentation style for these students.

Marsha Glick is the owner of Cybergators, a computer business that includes everything from training to Web design to networking and computer repair. She has worked in both home and classroom training settings, as well as with special-needs computer equipment for the hearing impaired, visually impaired, and physically disabled.