Bridging the Digital Divide

Local governments across America are creating initiatives to address the problem of a digital divide affecting seniors.

By Shannon Rosedale | May 20, 2015 | ARTICLE

By Shannon Rosedale

Local governments across America are creating initiatives to address the problem of a digital divide affecting seniors. While computer use rates among those aged 65 or older have improved, seniors still face obstacles to achieving technological proficiency.

By 2014, the Pew Research Center found that the rate of computer use among seniors had jumped to 56 percent from 26 percent in 2006, while 18- to 29-year-olds reached an 89 percent usage rate compared to 84 percent in 2006.1 Seniors report, however, that their understanding of and access to computers still proves to be problematic. Issues identified by the Pew Research Center include physical challenges, skeptical attitudes toward the benefits of owning a computer, and difficulty learning constant updates.2

This digital divide raises three concerns for local government. The first is a lack of engagement and accessibility between seniors and social services that is necessary to maintain a higher quality of life in later years. The second issue is civic engagement and inclusivity with local government. And the third is feeling a lack of connectivity within their community and families.3

Improving Digital Literacy

To address the problem, communities have developed programs by partnering with local nonprofits, libraries, and community centers to provide seniors a source of support and education on technology. This approach generally does not require a new building or staff, but does tend to rely heavily on volunteers. Initiatives across the nation focus on improving digital literacy—a term defined by the University of Illinois’ University Library as “the ability to use digital technology, communication tools, or networks to locate, evaluate, use, and create information.”

This goal can be achieved through the use of tutors leading class sessions and training that focuses on the desired needs of the targeted population, as well as having a designated location to field and answer questions, concerns, and comments on an ongoing basis.

Communities are using senior citizen mentors who have completed a technological training program, or local school students participating in a bridge-the-divide program, as tutors for their programs. These two approaches have been successful with senior participants by showing them that their peers can achieve digital independence4 and also by re-establishing a connection with the younger generation’s unique skill set.5

Overall, there have been three main reasons identified for wanting to increase technology usage for seniors: engage and communicate with friends and family, research medical and health concerns, and access social service providers.6

National Efforts

Two successful nationwide programs appear to be making significant impacts building the bridge across the senior digital divide. The first is the ICMA report Building Digital Communities: A Framework for Action.

This resource seeks to help communities chart a designated plan toward digital inclusiveness. States that have begun using this framework and seeing successful responses are Wisconsin, Texas, and Pennsylvania. There are also innovative efforts currently underway in Seattle, Washington; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Los Angeles, California.7

In Los Angeles, for example, citizens identified the need of support for low-income individuals, senior citizens, and tablets in regard to technological advancements.8 In order to do this, the city identified at-risk neighborhoods and replaced up to 2,600 new computers. They have opened up multiple computer centers that now offer health screenings for individuals who otherwise might not receive assistance.

The second is the Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) funded through Senior Service America. DII relies on participants in a second program offered by Senior Service America called Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) to serve as mentors and tutors for DII’s “Generation On Line” classes.

Nearly 500 SCSEP members have assisted more than 20,000 adults in DII classes; participants are 55 and older, though the average age is closer to 75. Classes are taught in such public settings as libraries, senior centers, churches or other faith-based organizations, and multiple community action agencies. Skills taught include conducting computer searches and sending and receiving e-mails.

DII shapes its programs to help participants learn skills they specifically need. This includes spending time with the individuals to hear what they are wanting out of the class and designing one-on-one time to make sure their direct needs are being met. DII programs are held in various cities, including Chattanooga, Tennessee; Sioux City, Iowa; and Baltimore, Maryland.

Through these national programs, seniors report feeling more included and that their needs are being heard by community members. One member, Patrick Carew of the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, program, says the DII program was created “to offer citizens of the community the chance not to be left behind” and by doing so, it has been “helping people enjoy the computer age by crossing the digital divide.”

Case Study: Knoxville, Tennessee

In 2014, the city of Knoxville, Tennessee’s 311 Director Russ Jensen began an initiative to connect seniors using their own tablets and computers through the 311 Touch application system. This system uses videoconferencing software and the center’s phone operators.

The program grew from participation with the inaugural Innovation Academy, which was created in 2013 through the Alliance for Innovation and the Arizona State University to focus on developing innovative local government projects to further develop their culture in unique ways. The program has since developed into a partnership with Knoxville’s Office of the Mayor, Office on Aging, and Community Action Committee (CAC).

All partners recognized that while there is an increase in seniors’ use of computers and tablets—of the tablet market, 25 percent are seniors 65 and older, which is predicted to increase—there is still a gap in the understanding of functionality with tablets.9 This led to the creation of Knoxville’s Digital Inclusion Program to help seniors reach an understanding of and functionality with the technological world, especially as more community programs go online.

The program consists of using space offered by CAC’s John T. O’Connor senior center; resources and iPads donated through the Office on Aging; and tutors and program development through the office’s 311 Call Center.

Each month, classes are held Friday afternoons, in a two-part series. The first focuses on learning basic computer skills; the second uses participants’ individual tablets (or tablets borrowed from the city). Fellow tutor Justin Bradley, who is employed by the 311 Call Center, and I work with each participant to help him or her with individual requests, depending on each class member’s tablet of choice.

This approach has proven to be the most successful because it allows seniors to practice and learn more about each type of tablet, before committing financially to a specific brand.

The program, launched in November 2014, has already graduated more than 40 participants. Those who have completed the classes have reported feeling more “included and listened to, as though they are important members of the community,” and also that “someone has taken the time to reach out and find a unique way to connect neighbors with their home.”

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero is dedicated to developing a more inclusive and diverse bridge across the digital divide, especially as more and more agencies and programs are turning to online usage. With the help of the digital inclusion classes and incorporation of new technology, Knoxville is determined to meet the needs of its residents while continuing to keep pace with the race of digital advancements without leaving anyone behind.


Endnotes and References

1 Pew Research Center. “The Web at 25 in the U.S.” Retrieved from
2 Pew Research Center. “Older Adults and Technology Use.” Retrieved from
3 Reardon, C. (2012). “Tech-Savy Older Adults Staying Connected, Challenging Sterotypes.” Social Work Today 12, 6, 10.
4 Senior Service America. (2015). “Crossing the Digital Divide at 55+.” Retrieved from
5 Richard, G. (2006). “Teens Bridge Digital and Generational Divide.” Broadband Properties magazine. 42–43.
6 Wynne, M.E., and Cooper, L.F. (2007). “Digital Inclusion Imperatives Offer Municipalities New Social and Economic Opportunities.” White paper sponsored by Microsoft Corporation. 
8 Institute of Museum and Library Services, University of Washington, International City/County Management Association. (2012). “Building Digital Communities: A Framework for Action.” Institute of Museum and Library Services. Retrieved from:
9 Pew Research Center. “E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps.” Retrieved from


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