Once participants are in class, everything should be done to meet their physical, emotional, social, and cognitive needs and, when possible, meet their needs without them having to ask. Class time should be structured yet flexible, fun, productive, informative, and encouraging, and should offer a glimpse as to why what they are learning is useful or important to them. This will increase the likelihood that participants will want to continue coming back to class and participating in the study or training program.
Making learning fun is important for any learning activity at any age. When learning a new technology through a formal classroom setting, the activities must be fun. Even if the material is challenging to learn, activities can be designed around participants' likes and dislikes. When learning how to send attachments, specific files (e.g., fun pictures) were used to make the class enjoyable. Participants uploaded and attached one of two pictures and sent it to one or more of their classmates, so everyone saw both pictures before the class was over. When learning how to search YouTube, suggestions from participants were taken to learn what they would like to see in terms of videos.
Class time can be made fun by making sure there is a structure, but allowing the class to diverge from a topic when needed. One rather poignant experience for our study came from a woman receiving an email from her granddaughter at the beginning of class. Although that class time was meant to be used for another topic, the email from this granddaughter included a picture of the sonogram of what would be the participant's first great-grandchild. Instead of pushing on with the lecture planned for the day, we allowed the participant to share the picture with the class by forwarding it to her classmates. This made the class more enjoyable to her and reinforced how to forward messages with attachments. The ability to make class time fun ties back into knowing your participants.
Showing participants the role ICTs can have in their lives is particularly important for this age group and for participants in this type of training (whether in a research setting or not). On more than one occasion, researchers in our study heard that potential participants did not need this type of learning or these types of devices. Prior to participation, many people did not feel that this was really something that would prove useful to them. This was often one of the larger battles fought in this type of program. However, upon completion of the training program, there was an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and pride in completing and knowing how to use the new technology. Many respondents further reported that they felt connected to the world in ways they had not previously felt connected. The ICT knowledge allowed them to overcome barriers that their age, health status, and living arrangements presented them with. Using ICTs could allow them to virtually walk down their childhood streets, visit museums in other countries, speak to relatives who lived far away, connect with individuals from their past, and keep up with family and friends in new ways. These results are discussed in detail in Chapter 5, but the key point to reiterate here is that these benefits will increase retention. Find ways to show participants early on that this type of knowledge and these skills will benefit them. This also speaks to the skills you are trying to impart. The skills younger generations might need to know for basic computer literacy are different from the skills older adults will need for basic computer literacy. Making sure that the skills are clearly defined and suited for the specific target demographic is essential in retaining participants.
Making classroom directions clear and repeating them frequently plays into retention in technology training programs. Specifically for older adults, directions must be repeated and given in a loud and clear voice. Make sure the instructor has an easy-to-understand voice and enunciates well. The noise from multiple computers and a classroom full of people makes it difficult for most people to hear. For older adults who might already have hearing issues and not be familiar with key terms, having someone who is loud and clear is important. It will reduce frustration for the participants and hopefully keep the class time productive for the participants.
Furthermore, giving directions in the same manner for each skill is vital. As participants learn from repeated attempts at an activity, directions should be given in the same steps, using the same key terms each time. We found that the slightest change, from a different instructor giving directions, or the same instructor giving options for steps, often confused participants. Once an instructor has been chosen, it is often best to stay with one instructor for continuity and familiarity. Directions are more likely to be given in the same manner each time, and the participants can find comfort in seeing the same face each time. Frequent, clear directions reduce frustrations and keep participants engaged in class material, thus reducing dropout from the training program or study.
In learning how to manage new technologies, one-on-one attention can be vital in helping individuals master the skills necessary to use the class time well. In our study, each class session had two to four floating assistants (usually graduate students) to make sure all participants were where they needed to be and were not falling behind. This type of individual attention can be beneficial in that no one will get so far behind that they will not be able to catch up. Floaters also provide the personal attention many participants seek in this type of learning environment. Floaters can help personalize each lesson for the participant and keep the participant's interest peaked for each session. However, it is important to maintain the autonomy of the participants. The floaters should not do the skills for the participants. No matter how far behind or how difficult the task, the participant should complete the task on his or her own. This builds self-efficacy in the participant and allows him or her to be active learners.
Lastly, in terms of class time, instructors and other training personnel should be encouraging at all times. They should use positive language and not shy away or simply do a task for someone who is struggling. Participants should feel encouraged throughout their time in class. Some of the material will be difficult, but constant encouragement and positive language will go far for the learner. This can often be difficult, especially if one person falls behind. The natural stance is to want to get the individual caught up by doing a task for him or her. Some participants might even request that tasks be done for them. However, encouraging the participants to do it for themselves is key in retaining them as participants. If they feel that tasks get too difficult or they are asking for too much help, they will likely not return to class. (It is also worthwhile to remind them of the availability of office hours for refresher training if they seem frustrated or uncertain.)
The key things to remember for class time include the following: participants are happiest and most likely to continue when class time is flexible and fun, and the reason they are learning a concept is clear; class time is informative and productive; and participants are constantly encouraged. Having a good understanding of your participants and building rapport with them will help ensure that class time is beneficial for both participants and trainers.