Cyber Seniors: New program helps senior citizens become internet savvy

Chattanooga State student John Jones helps a senior learn to use a computer during the college's first Cyber Seniors program held in December. (Contributed photo)
Chattanooga State student John Jones helps a senior learn to use a computer during the college's first Cyber Seniors program held in December. (Contributed photo)

Some computer skills are second nature for today's generation: logging in, opening a web browser, sending an email. But for those who grew up in a world without the web, using new technology can be challenging.

That's the motivation behind Chattanooga State's Cyber Seniors program, which partners college students with senior citizens for one-on-one sessions to teach them computer basics.

photo The class is proving popular. The March class, seen here, is double the size of the first class, offered in December. (Contributed photo)

The project is a collaboration between the college's Continuing Education and Workforce Development Division and Savitha Pinnepalli, assistant professor and IT department head.

Though Pinnepalli has only been at Chattanooga State for two semesters, she has organized programs like this in Louisiana, Iowa and Ohio over the past 15 years, she said.

For the Chattanooga State students, the Cyber Seniors program is an opportunity to give back and to practice soft skills like teamwork and communication.

For the seniors, the program is a free lesson that is customized to their needs. The student-mentors begin each session by interviewing the seniors - some need help with Microsoft Word or learning to type on a keyboard, while many want to set up an email or social media account to connect with friends and family.

The last session focused on cyber security, how to use online banking and shop safely, how to install anti-virus protection, and how to create secure passwords.

In December, the first time the program was offered at Chattanooga State, 16 seniors participated. This semester there were 33 eager students, recommended by word of mouth or happening upon the program via Chatt State's website.

John and Dorothy Terry heard about the Cyber Seniors program through their son Jonathan.

"We have computers at home, but we're probably illiterate when it comes to the ins and outs," John Terry said. "You don't know what you don't know."

John Jones, who studies IT and web design at Chattanooga State, said he enjoys volunteering for the program because it is humbling to realize how much he knows but takes for granted.

"Technology is just moving so fast, and it's leaving those who are wanting to know those skills behind," he said.

Sometimes this means the tutors must start with the basics.

"You would say, 'Let's go to,' and they'll throw their hands up because they don't know where to start," said Jones.

He has learned to start by making the seniors feel comfortable. Then, he teaches them how to use a web browser and a search engine so that they have the tools to learn more navigability on their own.

Emmanuel Escobar, a volunteer from program sponsor EPB, helped a senior learn how to use word processors.

"I introduced her to Google Drive and it blew her mind," Escobar said.

Pinnepalli hopes to offer more sessions in the future, but between coordinating volunteers, sponsors and administrators, each session takes a lot of effort. For now, the program is limited to once a semester, but Pinnepalli said there are more opportunities for seniors to learn at Chattanooga State.

"We're hoping more adults will come back to school," she said.

The Tennessee Reconnect program covers the cost of a two-year degree for eligible adults who live in the state and have not previously earned a degree. Pinnepalli hopes the Cyber Seniors program will help adults who are out of the workforce realize it's never too late to learn something new.

"There are so many capable people that have so much time on their hands and don't know what to do with it. We are showing them the avenue," Pinnepalli said.