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Teaching Seniors Tech at Chicago Public Library

“It’s more than just teaching tech; it’s building confidence that they have a place in this digital world.” – Jill, CyberNavigator

You’re never too old to learn.
Jill wrapped up her first lesson of the day. “She was incredible ─ very focused and determined,” Jill exclaims. Her student? A 70-year-old woman attending one-on-one computer help sessions for three weeks now.  “She wants to learn how to back up the photos on her mobile phone,” Jill continues. Today, they explored the world of Google Drive.
A CyberNavigator at three branches, Jill Garnier is no stranger to the Library. She worked in a corporate library for 20 years. “I’ve been looking to transition to the public library space for a while,” she shared. When the opportunity to teach tech at CPL came along, she jumped right in.
Now, instead of tech-savvy business executives, Jill serves older adults in need of digital help. “Most of my students are 60 to 70-year-olds with little to no computer experience,” she explains. But learning technology is only half of the reason that brings seniors to the Library. The other half? CPL is a friendly resource.

“A lot of them have similar stories: Family members have grown frustrated in trying to show them how to use their phones or how to operate the computer. So, they end up here.”

Teaching Tech 101
Can you recall using a computer for the first time? The screen, the keyboard, and the mouse are all foreign objects you’re too terrified to touch. “Learning a computer or using a mobile phone can be daunting for older patrons,” Jill shares. “It’s important to break down every task into steps ─ from turning on a computer, learning to click, to typing. “This way, it’s a little less intimidating. It’s saying, ‘See? You can do this. Let’s take it one step at a time.’ ”

“One patron recently turned on the computer, logged into his account, and completed a short email.  The look of triumph and the proud smile on his face was priceless.”

Jill also makes her students feel more comfortable by pairing a lesson with something familiar. Typing an email would be in the form of sending a loved one a message. Excel exercises doubles as personal budgeting sessions. “Older adults feel more comfortable with learning something new if you demonstrate concrete and relatable ways tech can help them,” she explains.
A little empathy and a lot of patience go a long way
In between interviews, Jill writes on her notepad. “I’m preparing instruction notes for patrons coming in today,” she says. “Since a lot of them have challenges remembering instructions, I write them down so they can practice on their own,” Jill continues.
When it comes to teaching tech to senior patrons, patience is key.

“There will be a lot of times when patrons would say, ‘I don’t remember; could you show me again?’ Sensing the shame behind the question, I remind them that sometimes it takes a few tries. And that’s okay.”

Jill’s patience comes from a place of empathy. “I learned to use the computer pretty late too. So, I can understand the feeling.”
Motivation can also do wonders. “We celebrate every milestone as a win,” Jill emphasizes. It’s critical in building confidence to remind patrons of how far they have progressed. After all, it takes commitment and courage to learn something you’re afraid of. “My goal is that patrons leave our sessions feeling accomplished. Because that sense of achievement fuels them to continue,” she shares.
Conquering the digital fear
Nothing makes teaching tech more fulfilling than witnessing a patron’s transformation. One story that stands out to Jill was her first senior student, Jackie. At 60 years old, Jackie was terrified of technology. She has a laptop that she never used, too scared it might break. She didn’t have an email account. Aside from making phone calls, Jackie barely used her mobile phone.
One day, Jackie visited the Dunning branch and asked a librarian if there was someone who could help her learn the computer. She was introduced to Jill.

“Jackie had no experience with computers until our first session. She was too nervous to touch the keyboard. Getting her to open her laptop calmly was a feat on its own.”

Over the course of six months, Jackie worked with Jill twice a week, slowly conquering her digital fear. “She was and still is extremely diligent. She is very determined to learn and overcome her phobia of anything tech,” Jill recalls fondly.
By her third month, Jackie was steadily growing more confident. She graduated from working alongside Jill to practicing on her laptop independently. “I’d check on her once in a while to reassure her that I was here if she had questions or if she ran into challenges,” Jill shares. Last month, Jackie began working on her grocery list on Excel.

“Last week, Jackie couldn’t contain her excitement as she told me that she volunteered to type documents at work. Her supervisor was happy with the result. I am extremely proud of her.”

Through the eyes of the teacher
Jill has been teaching tech to older patrons for just over six months and the experience is eye-opening. “The more I work with seniors, the more I realize how essential a CyberNavigator is,” she shared. “A lot of my students come with a mentality of being left behind. Along with the skills gained in this program comes the realization that not only do they have a place in the digital age, they can thrive.”

The digital divide prevents thousands of Chicagoans from accessing resources and finding opportunities in the 21st-century world. You can change that. 

When you invest in the Chicago Public Library Foundation, you invest in programs like CyberNavigator, where adult patrons gain confidence and learn crucial digital skills with the help of a caring mentor. From drafting an email to applying for jobs online…you make more possible!Chicago Public Library Foundation