1986 SeniorNet has become the largest trainer of older adults on computer technology and
the Internet. There are more than 158 SeniorNet Learning Centers in 35 states, and one of
the most prominent sites for older adults on the World Wide Web is www.seniornet.org . As SeniorNet has grown it has
developed a successful business model for local-national non-profit collaboration, but
without a significant public policy initiative this model cannot not be successful
duplicated in low-income and rural communities.
SeniorNet Learning Centers are heavily concentrated in urban, middle class locations. In
response to this problem, in 1997 the SeniorNet Board of Directors mandated that at least
50 percent of all new Learning Centers be placed in low-income or rural communities. In
the past two years, 70 percent of new Learning Centers have been located in low-income or
Much of SeniorNet's program is easily adapted for
low-income and rural environments. The peer teaching model and specialized curriculum work
well in any place where older adults are trying to learn computer technology. SeniorNet's
business model, however, is less adaptable.
As a non-profit organization SeniorNet has developed a
business model that serves the dual purpose of providing low-cost services while providing
a mechanism for the program to be self-supporting in the long run. In brief, the model
works as follows. Everyone who takes a class at a SeniorNet Learning Center is required to
pay a $35 annual fee to join national SeniorNet. The local non-profit partner who hosts
the Learning Center then charges whatever fee they feel is appropriate for the courses
they teach (the average fee is $35 for a 16-hour course, but many local Learning Centers
charge as little as $5/class). The local partner organization keeps the class fees and
uses this money to upgrade their Learning Center and support other programs. Overhead is
kept low by having a rent-free space as well as volunteer instructors and coordinators
(trained by SeniorNet) who teach classes and run the program.
This model has worked well for SeniorNet allowing for
rapid expansion while keeping numerous Learning Centers operating over the long-term
(several Learning Centers recently celebrated ten or more years of operation).
Unfortunately, in rural and low-income areas this model is more difficult to maintain.
This is not only the result of the SeniorNet membership and class fees (SeniorNet has a
scholarship fund, but it will become depleted over the long-term), but also because it is
difficult to find the skilled volunteers necessary to keep the program operating with a
Another model of operation has evolved at two SeniorNet
Learning Centers in both low-income and rural areas. Surprisingly, the same model appears
to work, at least in the short-term, in both areas, and arose independently in both rural
Arkansas and urban Detroit. This model requires that paid staff be hired to run the
program and teach classes as necessary. Although both Learning Centers are fee-based,
neither will be self supporting in the long-term without significant assistance from
This situation is of grave concern to SeniorNet because
without a model that is self supporting in the long-term it is difficult to secure the
initial funding to open Learning Centers. SeniorNet also shares the concerns of various
funders that it will be impossible to keep these Centers operating on a long-term basis
without long-term outside funding.
SeniorNet's research as well as our long experience shows
that older adults need not only access to computers, but also training about how to use
the equipment in order to successfully bridge the digital divide. It is also clear from
our experience that rural and low-income older adults do not have access to these services
and that as a result they are being left by the side of the road of the information
Clearly, without a public policy initiative that ensures
the long-term existence of community technology centers (and this needs to be multi-year
support) that includes subsidized staff, the digital divide for older adults in low-income
and rural communities will only continue to widen. It is essential that we take steps to
ensure that all Americans can participate in the information revolution.