A Model for Learning Resource Networks for Senior Adults

Page 163




Patricia Harper Apt

Roger Hiemstra

Iowa State University


Educational Gerontology, 5: 163-173, 1980

Copyright © by Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, A Taylor and Francis Journal.

Reprinted by Permission of the Journal’s editor

Stylistically, the article has been converted to APA, 5th Edition.


One way to combat the national tendency to ignore and neglect senior adults is to develop educational programs that specifically assist them in meeting their needs and expanding their interests. Thus, a model for learning resource networks is being proposed that (1) involves senior adults as resource people and permits them to plan their own educational programs, (2) takes advantage of their previous experience and knowledge, (3) assists them in better utilizing existing learning resources, (4) does not lock senior adults into a fixed time schedule or location, and (5) allows senior adults to pursue their interests.




There is an increased and growing need for more educational opportunities for senior adults. Recent studies by Havighurst (1972), Hiemstra (1975), and others confirm this statement. The 1971 White House Conference on Aging recognized this need and reported:


Education is a basic right of all persons of all age groups. It is one of the ways of enabling older people to have a full and meaningful life and a means of helping them develop their potential as a resource for the betterment of society. (p. 6)


Additionally, it appears that the need for educational opportunities for the elderly will only become more pressing in the coming years. The percentage of senior adults has grown consistently throughout this century; if present population projections are accurate, by the year 2000 roughly 20% of the population in the United States will be 65 years of age or older. Thus, with the expanding number of senior adults, the need for providing a great number of educational opportunities will also increase.




Education for the elderly was not a particularly important issue for many years because it was assumed that the elderly (that is, people


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over 60) (1) were not interested in education and (2) because of the infirmities of age were not able to learn very effectively. Recent research has disproved these two assumptions.


The elderly are interested in participating in educational activities. Independent research by Coolican (1974), Hiemstra (1975), and Tough (1971) demonstrate that considerable learning activity is occurring among these adults. Hiemstra found in his study that the senior adults interviewed were spending an average of 325 hours per year in learning activities (1975, p. 56).


The notion that senior adults generally are deficient in learning ability also appears not to be true. A series of studies in the 1930s and 1940s looking at performance by different people on the same test did show some decline in performance by age. The more recent longitudinal studies, however, have failed to substantiate this finding. In fact, some incidents of improved learning ability with age have been reported. A U.S. Army Alpha Intelligence Test administered to college freshmen was again given to these same people at two different times later in their life.


At age 50 the subjects showed a slight gain over their performance as freshmen, and at 61, in general, they maintained the level they had attained at 50 with a decline only in tests of numerical ability. (Havelock, 1973, p. 29)


A review of research conducted by Jacobs, Mason, and Kaufman (1970) also stresses the point that learning ability does not necessarily decline with age:


A number of studies, both cross-sectional and longitudinal have turned up convincing evidence that full mental ability is often retained in late old age, and that many of the so-called "senile symptoms" are remedial rather than representing an irreversible organic state. (p. 10)


The implications from these research findings are clear: senior adults are learning, they want to learn more, and they are capable of learning effectively. The findings challenge both the stereotypical notions of the elderly and the doubts concerning the efficacy of education for the elderly. But perhaps an even more important finding is the discovery of the cultural, social and psychological impact of depriving the elderly of educational and other activities. What does it mean to elderly people when society dictates that they stop working, stop learning, and cease being active? Jacobs, Mason, and Kaufman (1970) have recently addressed some comments on this issue:


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Although it has been well established that individuals are not deprived of learning ability simply because of advancing age, they are beset by a cultural milieu, which as Larson and others have pointed out, imposes a many faceted and insidious pattern of discrimination upon elders in our midst, including economic, cultural, social, educational and even medical aspects. The psychological damage to older adults is unmistakable since it tends to categorize them as "second class citizens" and thus to undermine their earlier convictions concerning ability to learn, sense of personal integrity and worth and potential as producers of social values. (p. 14)


Increasingly, a number of formal educational programs are being developed to meet the need for more educational activities for the elderly. These programs encompass courses in preretirement, cultural enrichment, vocational education and use of leisure time. Many of these programs meet in regular classrooms and employ lecture-type teaching techniques, but many senior adults are greatly encumbered by the requirements of formal educational experiences. The structure of the classroom, the way in which courses are taught and the nature of the material may not be particularly relevant to the interest and experiences of senior adults. In looking at the practical limitations of formal educational agencies, Hiemstra (1972a) has reported that the two greatest impediments to participation in adult education activities for senior adults were transportation limitations and a dislike of going out at night. It is interesting to note that these responses were significantly greater than those to the statements "I am too old to learn," and "I don't have enough energy or stamina."


Other methods must be sought to bring education to the elderly. Hesburgh, Miller, and Wharton (1973), authors of Patterns for Lifelong Learning, recognize the necessity to search for alternatives:


The expansion of the idea of education into a concept of lifelong human development is so pervasive that reliance on traditional method is inefficient, making crucial a new mix of approaches to family, school, corporation and community. (p. 52)


One alternative system is to take education out of the classroom and focus it around the interests and needs of individual senior adults and to make education available to a greater number of senior adults. This approach could be particularly appropriate for the elderly because of the difficulty they are likely to encounter attending regularly scheduled meetings. Also, an individualized


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approach could be advantageous because it considers the needs and interests of the individual, and it could build on the often considerable experiences of elderly people.


The framework for such a learning network approach is found in the Illich (1970) notion of "webs of learning networks." In Deschooling Society (1970), Illich describes the importance of establishing networks that would enable people to learn whatever and wherever they desire. Technological advances such as computer analysis and other systematic approaches to matching or relating data sets are viewed by Illich as having tremendous possibilities for deinstitutionalized education and for making education more relevant to people's needs. Computerized learning networks could also have the advantage of freeing education from a particular time schedule or classroom routine, and, as previously discussed, these advantages are particularly important for the elderly.


A major innovative prototype of learning networks is the Learning Exchange in Chicago. After three years of operation, over 13,000 people had used the Exchange to study some 18,000 different subject areas. The reasons for the establishment of the Learning Exchange have been described by Squires (1974).


The basic assumption underlying this model is that in any given community there are people with a wide variety of skills and interests which they would like to share with others. There are also many people who would like to learn a variety of skills or develop their interests, but they do not know where to find instruction for their particular needs. What a community needs is some mechanism for bringing there [sic] potential teachers, learners, and interest matches together. (p. 98)


The acceptance and success of the Learning Exchange augurs well for similar programs, particularly a learning resources network which is designed to meet the needs and interests of senior adults.




Thus, a significant need exists for a model of learning resource networks for senior adults, which (1) involves senior adults as resource people and permits them to plan their own educational programs, (2) takes advantage of their previous experience and knowledge, (3) assists them in better utilizing existing learning resources, (4) allows senior adults to pursue their interests, and (5) does not lock senior adults into a fixed time schedule or location. Such a model for operating a learning resource network for senior


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adults will be presented. The process of the model will be described in four phases: phase I-classification of available information concerning human resources, activities, and other learning opportunities within a community; phase II-development of information materials that will assist senior adults to better use existing community resources; phase III-linking senior adults with learning resources relevant to their needs through a guidance and support system; and phase IV -evaluation of the learning networks and their use.


Phase I: Classification

In order to classify available human resources, activities, and other learning responses within a community (Fig. 1) the following activities need to be completed:


Activity 1--Classification of Human Resources


To classify senior adults within the community in terms of their skills, interests, and abilities, a questionnaire can be developed to elicit the following information: individual identification; interest in the project; skills, interests, abilities; availability, and limitations to participation (Borg & Gall, 1971). The questionnaire can then be mailed or delivered to all senior citizens in the community. In the mailing or delivering, reference can be made to both the phone number of a learning networks project staff and larger group meetings as a means of personally answering senior adults' questions. At these larger group meetings, held in cooperation with

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senior citizen clubs, churches, and other existing organizations that serve senior adults, the project can be explained and questions answered. Once the questionnaires have been returned, possible resource persons can be personally contacted, and the project can be explained in greater depth. Then the senior adults who wish to take part in the learning network can be included.


Activity 2--Classification of Activities and Learning Resources


To classify information about activities and other learning resources within the community, the learning networks project staff will need to survey and inventory existing community resources. This inventory should consist of many and varied formal and informal educational experiences (Hiemstra, 1972b). Examples of such resources are:


  • Topical descriptions of exhibits and community resources
  • Existing materials on subjects of particular interest to senior adults such as estate planning and problems associated with living on a fixed income
  • Existing special educational clubs and groups such as senior citizen centers, reading groups, foreign language clubs, garden groups, and chess clubs
  • Existing materials that enable senior adults to learn new skills or acquire different vocational skills


This task is obviously quite large. Criteria will need to be set up that will help regulate the amount and type of information included in the system. The materials and resources cataloged, however, can represent general categories such as preretirement and retirement planning, skill acquisition, liberal arts resources, leisure time activities, and recreational activities.


Activity 3--Entering Information Collected into Computer System


The information about the people, activities, and resources identified by the surveys conducted in the first two activities described can then be entered into a computer system. This system will need to be designed to allow quick and easy access of the stored information. Each learning resource will need to be indexed in several different ways. Information available for each entry should include the number of people involved, location, time availability of transportation, and the existence of special educational materials


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that might assist senior adults in using the resources (Grabowski, 1972). A printout of this information can be used by the project staff to counsel interested senior adults on how their educational needs might be met.


Phase II: Development of Materials

To develop information materials that assist senior adults in better using existing learning resources, the project staff, in consultation with senior adults and experts working with these older people, will need to identify valuable learning resources that are available for senior adults (Fig. 2). Appropriate guides to these resources can then he created (Rush, 1975).


Activity 1--Producing Learning Guides


Learning guides can be designed for any number of resources. For example, senior adults can probably make better use of a historical society if they know exactly what to ask for or how to find the information they need.


Additional guides to be developed will probably include those on the library, art gallery, educational resources, and community government resources. The learning guides should not only explain the organization of any group or agency and what resources are available, but also mention any personnel who could serve as sources of information.


The learning guides should be informative and characterized by informal statements because one of the main purposes of these learning guides will be to build up the confidence of senior adults.


Another consideration is that senior adults may have problems in either hearing or seeing, therefore, learning guides will need to be available in complete form in print or audio media. Tape guides



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can include personal comments by the staff of an organization as well as descriptions of how to use the organization's resources. Printed material can include pictures and easily read diagrams.


Activity 2--Prototype Testing of Learning Guides


Each of the learning guides will need to be prototype-tested with a selected sample of senior adults to ensure that the guides are readable, informative, and enjoyable. Data on these testing sessions can be used to revise the learning guides if necessary.


Phase III: Linking


To link senior adults with those learning resources relevant to their needs, it is extremely important to develop an efficient and supportive delivery system for the proposed learning resources information network (Staff Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, 1970). The research, extensive surveying, and sophisticated technology that are all a part of this model may not have any impact unless the senior adults feel comfortable in using the network and find that it meets their needs. In order to ensure that the network is accessible, appealing, and potentially useful to senior adults, the following steps will need to be taken (Fig. 3).


Activity 1--Publicity and Coordination of the Networks


The learning networks will need to be widely publicized, not only through mailing brochures and using the news media, but, perhaps


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more important, through existing institutions and activities that currently serve senior adults. Organizations such as senior citizen centers and senior adults' clubs should be visited by a member of the project staff on a monthly basis to keep in touch with the learning needs of these older adults and to publicize the activities available through the learning networks (Havelock, 1973).


Although there will have been much publicity of the learning networks during phase I, the classification phase, publicity efforts will be intensified prior to the opening of a learning center, which will be described in activity 2.


Activity 2--Use of Collected Information in a Learning-Counseling Approach


Staffing and operation of a learning center A learning center will need to be developed to utilize the collected information in a learning-counseling approach. It should be regularly staffed by project personnel, accessible by public transportation, and have at least two telephone lines to permit quick access to the staff.


The learning center staff will need to be trained to assist these senior learners in obtaining information from the learning network. In addition, a professional counselor will need to be available for those learners who wish to use her/his services. This counseling service can facilitate senior learners' deciding how to best use the information obtained. For example, a learner may be interested in updating her /his skills to begin a new career or to find part-time work. In such a situation, the counselor may help the learner not only to find needed occupational information but also to use this information in motivational and adjustive ways, thus facilitating greater self-clarification and appraisal of opportunities, which could lead to the desired employment. The counseling services, of course, need not be limited to occupational counseling but could include all areas in which senior learners expressed interest in decision making based on obtained information.


Evaluation of learning-counseling experiences It will be important to learn the quality of the senior adult's learning-counseling experiences. A questionnaire can be developed to learn what have been the senior adult's major benefits and satisfactions and major dissatisfactions with the learning-counseling services offered. This checking procedure will allow the staff to modify the learning network resources and the counseling services to better meet the needs of the users.


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Phase IV: Evaluation


Although evaluation methods have been described under the vari­ous phases, the steps will be outlined.


Activity 1--Evaluation of the Learning Networks


Evidence to be collected

  • Data as to the development (pilot-testing, etc.) of survey questionnaires used to collect information about person and community learning resources.
  • Data as to the distribution and return of the survey questionnaires and the analysis of information gained from them.
  • Data as to the methods used in computerizing the information obtained in phase I and phase II.
  • Data as to the development of the learning center guides and any necessary modifications of them.


Activity 2-Evaluation of the Use of the Learning Networks


Evidence to be Collected


  • Data as to the use of the learning center by senior adults (an example, frequency of visits and materials used).
  • Data as to the requests for counseling services by senior adults and outreach efforts by the counselor.
  • Data collected as to the development and use of a questionnaire to learn the counseling user's benefits and satisfactions or dissatisfactions with services offered.


Activity 3-Evaluation Reporting and Dissemination


Data describing the development and outcomes of the learning networks will need to be analyzed and described in a summary report, which will be disseminated to relevant practitioners, researchers, and administrators under separate cover and through professional journals.




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Coolican, P. (1974). Self-planned learning: Implications for the future of adult education. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Research Corporation.

Grabowski, S. M. (1972). The role of the computer in adult education. Adult Leadership, 21, 178-179.


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Havelock, R. G. (1973). Planning for innovation through dissemination and utilization of knowledge. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan.

Havighurst, R. (1972). Developmental tasks and education. New York: David McKay.

Hendrickson, A. & Barnes, R. F. (1967). Educational needs of older persons. Adult Leadership,  2-4, 32.

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Staff of Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University. (1970). Guidelines for an information and counseling service for older persons. Durham, NC, Council on Aging and Administration on Aging.

Tough, A. (1971). The adult's learning projects (Research in Education Series No.1). Toronto: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

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