Designing, Implementing and Assessing an Internet Adoption Program for Senior Housing

LAKE FOREST, Ill., March 3, 2010 – On Tuesday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced a brief delay for some applicants for broadband stimulus grants. Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program Comprehensive Community Infrastructure projects will have until March 26

By Don S. Samuelson and Andrew Lowenstein

LAKE FOREST, Ill., March 3, 2010 – On Tuesday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced a brief delay for some applicants for broadband stimulus grants. Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program Comprehensive Community Infrastructure projects will have until March 26th to file their applications to NTIA. Applicants for Rural Utilities Service infrastructure projects will have until March 29th to file their applications to RUS.

But applicants for Applications in NTIA’s two other project categories – Public Computer Centers and Sustainable Broadband Adoption – remain due on March 15th. As regards these latter category of applications, we have found that there are three essential elements in the design and implementation of an effective broadband adoption program for seniors living in senior housing communities and for their surrounding neighborhoods.

The first element involves the establishment of a solid base line of information on each given community which can function as a starting point. This will include: (1) demographic and background data on the senior population; (2) questionnaires on their existing familiarity with and use of typewriters, computers and the Internet; and (3) surveys of their initial thoughts on how computers and the Internet might be useful to them and which Internet skills they would like to develop.

The second element involves the “intervention strategies,” the approaches and programs used to raise the awareness levels of seniors with respect to the personal and practical benefits that can result from the broadband/Internet skills and applications.  It also involves offline and on-line education training most effective in developing those skills.

The third element involves ongoing and post-program evaluation.  What Internet skills were actually developed? How are the skills being used? Was there testing?  Did “offline” seniors become online Internet subscribers?  What did it take/cost to convert a previously offline senior to an active user with an Internet account: A certification of a “driver’s license” level of computer/Internet competence for travel on the information superhighway?  The personal ownership of an Internet device and broadband connectivity?  What can be done to make awareness raising efforts, the education and training and the sustained use of the Internet more efficient and fun?  How can the overall process be improved?  How can it become more cost-effective. Were the increases in the appreciation and use of the Internet results justified by the costs?

Developing the Base Line of Information

The BTOP Sustainable Broadband Adoption (SBA) application lists a number of categories for which information is to be collected: age/birthdate, ethnicity, gender, household income, educational achievement, the nature of disabilities, the employment status of the individual and the primary and secondary language of the seniors.

This information creates a simple base line for the demographic profile of a user community, but the authors of this paper recommend collecting more specific data that can help in the design and success of individual adoption program content. This additional information includes the name of the individual, their unit number, phone number, marital status, number of years living in the building, family and friends, places of residence, education, work experience and hobbies – any of which could suggest areas of interest that could be supported by the use of e-mail and the Internet.

The background survey information collected on the senior can be gathered during an informal discussion. No computer is involved.  The other goal of this discussion is to make a human connection and to promote bonding and trust.

A second category of information to be collected relates to the prior experience of the senior with typewriters, other office equipment, business or office work or involvement in informal or volunteer organizational settings. Experience in organizing holiday dinners, picnics, family reunions are examples of organizational skills that may not be thought of as such.  The informal one-on-one conversations will lead into all sorts of background information that have relevance to the underlying purposes of Internet/broadband adoption if not to the obvious utility of the skills. Those points can be made later in classroom settings, in computer labs or in conversations with other seniors “around the water cooler.”

This category will also involve questions about computer experiences at school, home or work, the interest of the senior in developing or improving Internet skills and specific questions about a cell phone, an e-mail address, a computer and a broadband connection. The last question will ask the senior to assess their own computer/Internet skills on a scale of zero to 10.  The goal is to determine Internet literacy and fluency prior to the intervention of awareness raising, education or training.

The third category of information to be generated for the survey relates to the expression of initial interest of each senior to possible Internet skills: (1) connecting to children and grandchildren; (2) setting up an e-mail account; (3) sending and receiving messages; (4) attaching documents and photos to messages; (5) learning to use Google and other search engines; (6) accessing information on healthcare, Medicare, Medicaid or drug programs; (7) budgeting, banking and paying bills; (8) accessing online games and entertainment; (9) accessing government financial support programs; and (10) connecting to hobbies and interest groups.

The overall goal of this data collection is to understand the experience and interests of the senior so that the benefits of Internet skills and applications can be real, practical and personal.

Designing and Implementing the Intervention Strategy

The basic goal of the intervention strategy is to illustrate the practical benefits of the Internet sufficiently that prospective program participants will see personal value in passing through a progression of interim steps to becoming an active user of the Internet and a subscriber to a broadband Internet service.

Crossing the digital divide to become an Internet subscriber is a process, not a single act.  The Sustainable Broadband Adoption application recognizes that there are a number of steps involved in crossing the Digital Divide and being actively online. The authors of this article propose seven specific steps to help a senior advance from being offline and uninformed about Internet benefits to being an active Internet user and subscriber.

Awareness Raising

The first step is to use normal communication processes like flyers, printed materials, “announcements” and group meetings to explain the benefits of broadband/Internet use that seniors have experienced from using the Internet. This is a general explanation of Internet benefits, so that seniors can identify areas of possible personal benefit to them.

Particularizing the Benefits to the Individual

The second step is to make an initial assessment of an individual’s “offline” interests and experiences as well as his/her basic level of comfort and knowledge with computers and the Internet.  This helps the educator determine how the individual’s existing interests might be enhanced through the Internet and broadband adoption and to engage in a friendly, non-technical discussion about how computer technology and the internet can help the individual explore his/her interests.  Steps one and two are awareness raising activities.

Education and Training

The third step is to develop the basic knowledge and skills to be comfortable using a computer (mouse, keyboard, touch screen, etc.), as well as how to access basic programs and the web.  This involves the implementation of a learning curriculum with group meetings, one-on-one tutoring, the use of the computer lab and hard copy handouts describing and illustrating the learning program.  This process may utilize senior friendly software such as the Connected Living Internet Portal or other applications geared toward first time users.

Initial Evaluation and Additional Training

The fourth step is the post-training assessment to evaluate the results of the preliminary training and to develop a specific “case management-like” program for the development of additional Internet skills and confidence using particular interest to the senior.

Certification of Achievement – The “Driver’s License and the Computer”

The fifth step involves study for and the achievement of some level of certification on the Information Superhighway.  The authors believe it is reasonable to require the recipients of subsidized broadband access and computer equipment to demonstrate their commitment by starting and completing a learning program, some combination of a physical program taught at the onsite computer learning center and a “virtual” program using distance learning materials specifically designed for seniors.  The objective of this step is for the individual to pass a simple test and be awarded an Information Superhighway “Driver’s License.”

Actively Using the Internet

The sixth “step” is really a stage when the senior  starts to use the Internet as part of the everyday routine, like waking up with coffee, reading the newspaper or using the phone. At this point in the process, the senior has crossed the Digital Divide and has “adopted” the Internet as a tool in their skill set.

Becoming a Subscriber

The seventh and final step is for the senior to conclude that broadband/Internet has demonstrated its value so that the senior regards it as a priority expenditure in the budget, whether fully paid for by the senior, or paying the remaining amount after subsidies through Universal Service of contributions made by the building. For seniors who can’t or won’t pay the subscription cost, there is always the option of using the onsite computer learning center and remaining an “active user.”

The authors feel that there are a number of key factors that have led to the significant adoption success results that Connected Living has experienced with their pilot project in Massachusetts and Illinois in 2008 and 2009.  The senior “bonded” with the program through the initial one-on-one interviews that were directed to their particular interests and experiences.  Registering with self-authored profiles to be part of a residential community created an instant network of seniors with like interests.  The group discussions were good overviews of computers and the Internet and interesting  topics of general interest to the seniors.  Initially, the Internet was simply a vehicle to gather information of interest to the residents.  Getting online quickly with an e-mail address and actual contacts with children, grandchildren and friends made the whole exercise practical.

The use of offline materials – including videos, white board presentations, and individual and group discussions – turned out to be an excellent mechanism to explain the benefits of an on-line experience. Finally, the simple interface developed by Connected Living gave seniors the “training wheels” to get them online and using e-mail and the Internet for practical purposes quickly and easily.

We have found that seniors act positively to: (1) the initial one-on-one human connection; (2) developing skills with clear and practical values; (3) proceeding at one’s own pace; (4) having access to offline and on-line training materials; (5) the social aspects of group classes and learning experiences, like high school; and (6) having access to a computer and an Internet connection in the individual apartments.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Intervention

The Sustainable Adoption BTOP applicants asks for two key evaluation metrics. The first relates to the effectiveness of “awareness raising” strategies. The second involves the calculation of the costs of generating a “new subscriber.”

Awareness-raising campaigns use conventional marketing metrics.  Target audiences are identified and researched. A strategy for appealing to the target audiences is developed.  Channels of communication are selected.  Channel communication strategies are developed.  Budgets are established.  As the marketing program is implemented, the results of the expenditures are tracked on a “cost per unit of intended result” basis.  More of the budget is allocated to the marketing channels that are effective.  Less is allocated to those of lesser effectiveness.

There are two basic ways to measure the impact of the awareness raising efforts.  The first is to measure the number and quality of the responses to each of the communication efforts used to promote awareness.  That would involve tracking: (1) attendance and interest demonstrated at initial group informational meetings; (2) attendance and interest at the initial meetings with the Internet instructor; (3) the entry and dissemination of materials for the online community directory; (4) attendance Internet institutional group meetings; (5) participation in computer labs; (6) interest demonstrated in meetings with instructors such as Connected Living Ambassadors;

The second and more important measure of impact is to determine the number of seniors who: (1) obtain an e-mail address; (2) start using the internet on a regular basis; (3) take and pass competency tests; (4) obtain and use computing devices in their individual units; (5) get Internet connectivity in their individual units; and (6) subscribe and pay for an Internet service. The ultimate test of the effectiveness of the overall awareness-raising and instructional programs relates to the increase in the number of seniors actually subscribing to and using the Internet, because they have become convinced that the practical and prioritized values of the Internet are worth the effort, frustration, and cost of actually getting online.

Similar measurements of the impact of awareness raising campaigns can be developed to assess interest and activity by: (1) family and friends of the seniors; (2) senior on the building waiting lists; and (3) seniors and senior-supporting organizations in the neighborhoods.

Editor’s Note: The preceeding guest commentary appears by special invitation of Broadband Census News. Neither nor endorse the views in the commentary. We invite officials, experts and individuals interested in the state of broadband to offer commentaries of their own. To offer a commentary, please e-mail Not all commentaries may be published.

Don S. Samuelson of DSSA Stratategies has more than 30 years of experience in government-assisted housing and real estate development. Andrew Lowenstein is with MyWay Village, Inc. Samuelson has a passion for applying broadband to provide solutions in the fields of education and training. E-mail him at, or contact him by phone at 847-420-1732.

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