A SPECIAL SECTION ON TECHNOLOGY: Ambassadors of the Computer Age

Article excerpt

Citizens from two groups that are typically undervalued in our society -- students with disabilities and the elderly -- were able to enhance one another's lives and skills thanks to the innovative program Mr. Jennings describes.

STUDENTS JUDGED to be at risk because of learning or behavioral disabilities are frequently the recipients of services within their schools and communities. While it is certainly essential for these students to receive support services, they are often overlooked as potential resources in their communities, and their abilities remain unrecognized and unchallenged. Yet students with disabilities can develop personal, social, and academic skills through the process of making valuable contributions to others.

Like students with disabilities, the elderly are also frequently ignored or rejected. They are often viewed as a social and economic burden, while their rich knowledge and capacity to contribute to society are minimized or overlooked entirely. The fact that both these groups are often disregarded led me to design a program that would establish a meaningful connection between them.

Most young people today are comfortable with computers. They have grown up with computers in their classrooms and in their homes. Indeed, many of today's students have far better computer skills than the adults who teach and supervise them. On the other hand, many senior citizens have poor computer skills.1 As the use of computers permeates society, many seniors are finding that they need to acquire some basic computer skills. However, they are often reluctant or afraid to undertake the learning of these skills on their own. The value of putting these two groups together seems obvious once their experiences are looked at side by side, and that juxtaposition led to the development of the Ambassadors of the Computer Age Program. This intergenerational computer tutoring program took place in five phases over a period of 16 weeks.

The 18 students who participated in this project attended a special education resource center for a replacement language arts class. Two language arts classes of nine students each completed the five phases of the program as a part of their language arts class. Each student was classified as either emotionally disturbed or learning disabled, and the levels of academic functioning within the class varied widely.

Phase 1, which lasted for one week, began with the exploration of the students' expectations, stereotypes, prejudices, and fears regarding older people. During this phase, the students wrote in response to prompts and pictures, filled in blanks in stories and cartoons, and completed surveys. These activities were designed and conducted in a manner that encouraged students to be honest, to admit and describe their prejudices, and to be comfortable with the fact that they had little accurate knowledge about seniors. The students were encouraged to discover that their views were not unique and were perhaps reflective of the attitudes of society at large.

Phase 2, which lasted for two weeks, involved exploring where the attitudes discovered in Phase 1 originated. Once the students had discovered the nature and extent of their own attitudes, beliefs, and opinions about seniors, they were ready to examine the cultural attitudes, myths, and stereotypes that had influenced the development of their thinking. During this phase of the project, we examined closely the representations of older people in films, on television, in advertising, and in literature. The students discovered that many of the attitudes they held about seniors were based on what they had read, seen, and heard.

Phase 3 of the project, which lasted three weeks, focused on learning facts that would help the students differentiate between the realities and misconceptions. Activities in this phase involved conducting research both in and out of the classroom. In the classroom, we examined realistic portrayals of the elderly in both films and literature. …