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SeniorNet Nears 25 Years

In the world of computers, 1986 was a milestone year. Apple introduced the Mac Plus. Microsoft went public. And a professor of education launched an ambitious effort to ensure that older adults were not left behind in the Information Age.

SeniorNet was the brainchild of Dr. Mary Furlong of the University of San Francisco. With startup funds from the Markle Foundation, Furlong's goal was to provide computer training to seniors through centers across the U.S.

Her timing couldn't have been better. Personal computers became an affordable at-home device in the mid-1980s. Older adults, who had never used a keyboard before, wanted computer training, but most importantly they wanted to learn computer skills with people their own age.

Furlong's verve resulted in SeniorNet's establishing computer learning centers throughout the U.S. and overseas, where for a small fee older adults could learn the basics of computing, e-mail and Web surfing.

Instructor Joyce Hackey (standing at left) leads a SeniorNet class in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Through the 1990s, SeniorNet trained over one million older adults and captured the attention of media and corporate sponsors. A 1998 New York Times headline conveyed the organization's energy: "Wielding Mouse and Modem, Elderly Remain in the Loop."

But by the mid-2000s, SeniorNet hit some bumps on the information superhighway. The nonprofit organization was not immune to the challenges faced by for-profit dot-coms. Now, as the nonprofit organization prepares for its 25th anniversary, a smaller SeniorNet is reorganizing for the future.

For a long time, SeniorNet moved in the fast lane. It opened more than 200 centers in the U.S. and overseas. The curriculum grew to include ways to use computers to prepare family genealogies and conduct other basic research. Non-technical retirees were converted into senior nerds. "Once you get a computer, what else do you have time to do?'' joked one Ossining, N.Y., participant in a 1998 New York Times story.

While senior computer usage has continued to climb, SeniorNet itself has struggled. The number of training centers dropped from a peak of 220 to 120. Last year, the organization relocated its headquarters from San Francisco to Herndon, Va., outside Washington, D.C. The move resulted in other changes. SeniorNet dispensed with a headquarters staff and outsourced its operations, according to James Zaniello, a part-time executive director.

In making the move, SeniorNet's goal was to be closer to a larger number of its computer centers as well as federal government resources, Zaniello says.

As SeniorNet restructures its operations, the situation at local centers seems much more positive. "We run full tilt for our spring and fall terms," says Joe Gelm, volunteer coordinator at the center in Cary, N.C. "I have 45 volunteer instructors available to teach classes and to mentor students."

The interest is also high in nearby Chapel Hill. "I'm surprised that there's a waiting list for our introductory computer fundamentals course," says Joyce Hackey, a retired Defense Department employee and volunteer SeniorNet trainer for the past nine years. "You would think by now that retirees would have acquired basic computer skills."

SeniorNet's initial courses focused on computer ABCs. If students had any computer experience, it was limited to working on dedicated systems such as airline reservations or systems that focused on specific manufacturing, administrative or financial applications. The curriculum has grown to about 40 different course offerings, from fundamentals to computer maintenance, photo editing and financial bookkeeping.

When SeniorNet started, the only other places teaching computer ABCs were high school extension programs and innumerable computer schools. SeniorNet created a training program consisting of hands-on training of eight or 10 students who attended classes for two hours, twice weekly for four weeks. The cost was $20 (now $40) plus an additional fee to become a SeniorNet member. The instructors, all volunteers, are experienced users or computer professionals.

SeniorNet's audience is shifting as baby boomers, many of whom are already computer literate, move toward retirement. Zaniello says the curriculum will continue to include basic computer courses along with more sophisticated offerings for skilled users.

For now, the basic computer course is still the most popular in Cary, says Gelm, an IBM retiree and a SeniorNet instructor for the past nine years. "What we don't know is what we'll be teaching ten years from now."

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