Bridging the generation gap with technology: Students, seniors team up to tackle the Internet

At Ballard High School for the next few weeks, a clutch of computer-savvy students will be lending their older compatriots a helping hand by bringing a group of seniors up to date on such modern contrivances as e-mailing and Googling.

"GenerationLink," a program bringing together students, seniors and the Internet, was launched Thursday, March 24, with much media hype, as kids and their 60-plus-year-old students packed themselves into a computer lab at Ballard High and started pointing and clicking. It seemed at times that representatives from EarthLink, the sponsoring company, and media toting cameras outnumbered their subjects in what proved to be a highly controlled experiment in soundbytes and corporate charity.

Regardless of who's doing what for publicity, this program is a symbiotic boon for both students and seniors. The former get to hang out with some older citizens they'd not normally meet, and the seniors get hooked up, wired in and turned on to the computer age.

The Ballard High group will meet once a week for six weeks. At the end of the program the Ballard student who writes the best essay about the experience will be awarded a scholarship.

Fifteen years ago, the following statement likely would have been met with shrugs and general incomprehension: "Eight in 10 off-line seniors do not think they will ever go online."

That's a statistic reported in a March 2004 edition of Pew Internet and Amer-ican Life. Peel back the techno-speak, and what you have is the simple fact that many senior citizens, due to natural rhythms of history and trends, missed out on the computer boom of the '90s, which was largely a 20- and 30-something-fueled explosion. The popularization of the World Wide Web left a lot of folks in the dust.

The same PI&AF report states that only 22 percent of Americans age 65 or older said they had accessed the Internet, contrasted with 58 percent of the 50-64 age bracket and 77 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds reporting having gone online. "GenerationLink," which has the cooperation of AARP Washington, is seeking to remedy that generational disparity by "forging a connection between teens and seniors that otherwise might not occur," according to an EarthLink press release.

Dan Greenfield, vice president of corporate communications for Earth-Link, touted the social benefits of the new program. "What better way to bring people together than through the Internet," Greenfield said. "GenerationLink gives us the opportunity to create a dialogue between teens and seniors in a way that enriches the lives of both generations."

Such dialogue was in evidence last Thursday as Ballard sophomore Gyasi Bass tutored Ray Wiesner, 71, on how to navigate the Internet. Wiesner, a guitarist and lifelong fan of the surf-rock band The Ventures, was dead set on finding photos from The Ventures "Beach Party" held March 12 in Seattle. After a number of failed searches on Google, he finally located the band's official Web page.

"I'm getting used to this little mouse here," Wiesner said, clicking on a photo of The Ventures' live performance. "He tends to want to get away from you," he explained of the computer appendage that guides the cursor around the screen.

As for navigating his way around the 'Net, Wiesner said the "getting on" was the hard part; one you're on, he added, it's a "snap" clicking around locating items.

Bass, all smiles as he listened to Wiesner cut jokes about his ineptitude as a student, said he planned first on teaching Wiesner how to find stuff using a search engine, how to e-mail and, of course, how to play games. After The Ventures venture, the two planned on finding Web sites about stock-car racing - Wiesner's nephew is a nationally ranked driver, and he said he wants to keep up on his achievements.

It looked like the beginning of a beautiful relationship, forged across the artificial synapses of modern technology. Wies-ner was all praises for the teaching skills of Bass. "He's doing the hard part," he said. "He's a good teacher. I can understand him."

In all, 10 student/senior teams plunked down in front of keyboards and engaged in similar remedial activities. Some pairs had a bit of a head start. For instance, Ballard senior Ryan Molina and Vivian Martin, a graduate of Queen Anne High School Class of '33, were busy polishing Martin's skills. "I'm not totally new to this," she said of her computer skills. "I just want to fill in the gaps." (Unfortunately, our conversation was cut short at this point by an EarthLink representative intervening because Martin and Molina were not, alas, "pre-identified" spokespeople.)

Be that as it may, the inaugural GenerationLink class, which ran for an hour, appeared to be a successful event. EarthLink to date has launched the program in 10 schools in such communities as Atlanta, Dallas and Boston, with plans to expand to additional cities nationwide.

AARP Washington state director Doug Shadel appears enthusiastic of how the program will benefit seniors. "The Internet can connect seniors with family and friends, new resources and information, which encourages seniors to participate with others, develop skills and meet their ever-changing needs and interests," Shadel explained. "It can also provide a critical linkage that reduces isolation, allowing seniors to remain independent and lead satisfying lives."

From another perspective, Ballard High School principal Phil Brockman expounded on the upside for his students. "There is no doubt that this is an excellent way to build respect for self and others among our youth," Brockman said, "and we applaud EarthLink for supporting this partnership."

For more information about EarthLink, call 1-800-EARTHLINK or visit For further information about AARP, visit

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