Computers: a new learning experience for seniors

Roxie and Nancy Vesper, a grandmother and granddaughter, share a computer at Laurelhurst Elementary School. Nancy uses it by day, when her fifth-grade class has its turn in the lab. Mrs. Vesper uses it by night, when the Seattle Parks Department schedules the lab for adult classes.

Why does a grandmother take a course in computers? Mrs. Vesper's answer is similar to that of many parents who encourage their children to study computers: ''This is a computer age, and I think everyone ought to know about them.'' Her classmates add that they want to be able to talk with their computer-wise offspring.

''My daughter in Anaheim (Calif.) teaches about these machines, and I want to be able to talk to her,'' says Jeannette Carter.

The Seattle Parks Department course in computers is just one of many offerings across the country where seniors are gaining introductory - and advanced - skills in computing.

In the introductory class at Laurelhurst, Linda Bundy, the instructor, emphasizes hands-on time. Ms. Bundy gives out a little bit of information and then allows time for students to work with it. Her comments to the class are reassuring. ''Until this is comfortable, we won't leave it. Don't worry, we won't leave anyone behind,'' she says as she reexplains how to transfer between Logo's DRAW and EDIT modes.

Another introductory course in computers was offered by the Telos Program for Older Adults at Bellevue Community College in Washington during the last fall and winter. Instructor Wayne Bitterman comments: ''My students took the course because they'd heard and read about computers and wanted to see what's going on. Their interest reflects an enthusiasm to stay in touch. Some anticipated working with their grandchildren.''

To provide firsthand experience, Mr. Bitterman personally hauled computers back and forth to his early classes, held off campus. During winter quarter the Telos class moved to a computer lab on campus, where everyone got hands-on time. But by spring so many regular Bellevue Community College students wanted computer courses that the seniors were unable to continue in the lab.

''I was disappointed,'' says Mr. Bitterman, ''because some of my students wanted to go on with spreadsheets and data bases.''

Seniors are also being introduced to computers at the Experimental College of the Associated Students of the University of Washington, Seattle. Instructor Cathy Klein begins her one-day seminar, ''Computers for Seniors,'' in her living room, with a low-key introduction. In the afternoon the class moves to a downtown computer store for hands-on experience.

Ms. Klein cites three reasons computers are especially useful to seniors: First, a personal computer can connect people with mobility limitations to the outside world. Second, computers can be useful to retirees with hobbies or small businesses. Third, computerized items such as garage-door openers and home banking and shopping can help run the home.

Ms. Klein's students come to class with plans for what they want to do, and some go on to develop further expertise. One student is revising a book on genealogy and keeping track of new data on her computer.

Success at introductory experiences with computers led some seniors to further training and application of their computer know-how. After retiring in 1978 from Mobil Oil, Don Boyd took two years of BASIC (a computer ''language'') at Bellevue Community College and went on to take courses in quantitative methods at the University of Washington in Seattle. He now uses his training to write programs that keep track of personal investments and to turn in ''letter perfect'' term papers in his business courses at the university, where he is finishing up his bachelor's degree in business administration. As secretary of the couple's condominium home association, his wife, Tina, writes minutes, newsletters, and correspondence on the couple's IBM PC.

Going one step further with his computer training, Paul Zilzel, a retired physics professor, went back to school in 1982 and took what he describes as ''all the computer courses in the data processing program plus some of the courses in the computer science program at Seattle Community College'' in Washington. He has since founded Microcosm, a microcomputer consulting service that helps people learn to use their computers and to customize their programs. Mr. Zilzel was recently awarded a contract from the City of Seattle for transferring a utility credit program for senior citizens from paper to computer. He also has a contract with the Seattle-King County Division on Aging for conducting training courses in using computers at the division.

Months of trial and error precede Mr. Zilzel's level of mastery. Back at Laurelhurst Elementary School, Vivian Thomas stares at an orange screen, the color of Logo's DRAW mode, wishing it were black, the color of the EDIT mode, and asks, ''How do I get my background back where it belongs?''

Ready to give up on trying to combine a triangle and square to make a house, Ms. Carter grumbles, ''Phooey! I won't edit again.''

Her friend Violet Adams persists: ''If you want to get your roof up out of that house, you have to take off another five degrees.''

After several trials inputting angles of various degrees, Ms. Carter, with Ms. Adams's help, raises the roof of the house.

A few weeks later students in the Laurelhurst class reflect on their gains. Ms. Adams is now learning word processing on her family's computer and may take more computer classes when she has time. Peggy Davison, a tax accountant, comments that ''Japanese is easier,'' but she is glad for the hands-on experience and ''probably will take another class to get experience with figures.''

Mrs. Vesper, eyes sparkling, sums up her first computer experience this way: ''It's a new language. All of the senses are attuned to it - sight, shape, color. You become a little child again.''

For many seniors, that's just the beginning.

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