Ann Wrixon
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Call for Sustainable Community Technology Centers for All Older Adults Ann Wrixon is the Executive Director of SeniorNet  which is based in San Francisco, CA.
Ann Wrixon

In 1986 when SeniorNet was founded to provide training for older adults on computers, the issue of access to technology for older adults was critical. It seemed likely that an entire generation was going to be left out of the information revolution unless drastic action was taken to include them. Since that time it has become clear that there is a digital divide between those who have access to technology and those who don't, but that increasingly that divide is the result of economics, race, and geography as well as age. This development raises a host of public policy issues, but the most pressing is the need to develop sustainable models of community technology centers that include programs for older adults.

Pictured here are Jack Campbell (left), volunteer instructor and Coordinator of the SeniorNet Learning Center in Orinda, California, located in a HUD low-income senior housing facility, talking with Charles Schwab (right) about the SeniorNet and Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. web sites. Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. sponsors the financial security area on the SeniorNet web site; the Charles Schwab Corporate Foundation has sponsored ten SeniorNet Learning Centers.
Since 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 . 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.

Currently, 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 rural communities.

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 low overhead.

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 outside sources.

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 superhighway.

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.