Teaching us to compute

SeniorNet Learning Center of Central Florida simplifies a potentially daunting experience.

Julie Landry Laviolette

Special to the Sentinel

July 29, 2007

Turning on a computer for the first time can be a daunting task for seniors, especially those who have lived a relatively low-tech life.

But a group of volunteers at the SeniorNet Learning Center of Central Florida is trying to change that, with a series of computer classes geared to seniors who have never clicked a mouse.

The nonprofit center, based at the Marks Street Senior Recreation Complex in Orlando, is run by a volunteer staff of 50 under the direction of president Tom Springall.

Springall, 71, of Orlando worked 30 years at IBM before volunteering at the center. Most of the staff -- teachers, coaches and technicians -- is comprised of seniors.

"The instructors have the same ailments and problems ourselves, so we understand our students," he says.

The center schools about 400 to 500 students a year in courses ranging from basic computer skills to digital photography and buying and selling on eBay. Course tuition starts at $30. Most students are seniors, but all ages are welcome, Springall says.

"We cater to older students, but we'll take younger ones," he says. "As long as they can put up with us, we can put up with them."

Many seniors have had little exposure to computers, which can be frustrating, Springall says.

"The problem with most technical schools is that there is one instructor to 20 students," he says. "A senior may get his first question answered, but then they're quickly in over their heads."

Springall says coaches are available to offer one-on-one help, as needed.

"Learning computer is a cumulative process -- what you learn today is based on what you learned yesterday," he says. "The coaches help keep the class together."

Many seniors enter their first computer class with some apprehension, Springall says.

"Some are afraid they're too old to learn," he says. "Very few come into the beginner's class with a smile on their face."

Volunteer instructor Bert Hood, 85, of Orlando has been with the program since it started in 1996. He says he uses humor to defuse those first-day fears.

"We have a hard time sometimes because some of these students haven't been in a formal school setting since high school -- 40 or 50 years ago," he says. "The hardest thing for them is they're intimidated."

Hood, who teaches a beginner's course, says he starts with how to turn the machine on.

"I tell them, 'If you turn it on and there's no smoke and no fire, you're doing fine,' " he says.

Hood says he tries to pique students' interest with the resources available by computer, so that they will stick with it after class is over.

Pulling up the Vatican's Web site brought one woman to tears, he says. "When you realize the things you can do with a computer, it's a marvelous machine."

Barbara Zeyn, 75, and her husband, Arno, 72, have taken four SeniorNet classes in the past year. The Orlando couple had owned a computer, but weren't comfortable using it.

"We were real dummies," Barbara Zeyn says. "We had tried adult-ed classes a while back, but we wanted to get in a place where we didn't feel pressure from other students."

Zeyn says the high student-teacher ratio at SeniorNet made it much easier to learn. Now she e-mails friends, researches medical and shopping sites and keeps her computer's security system updated. Arno Zeyn uses the computer for their business and homeowners association.

"You're going to be left behind if you don't know how to use a computer. People don't write letters anymore," Barbara Zeyn says. "If you want to be in contact with your friends and relatives, you have to e-mail."