How Can Online Education Accommodate Older Audiences?

Older generations are increasingly interested in online courses. What about yours?

There’s an obvious distinction in online education between adult learners and K-12 learners.

Children and adolescents tend to take classes as a mandatory part of their school program, or (if they’re electives) as part of their process of self-discovery.

Meanwhile, adults usually approach online courses with a different set of assumptions, including a better sense of self, a larger store of personal experience, and greater motivation.

That said, even among adults, expectations, motivations, and experience regarding online education are widely varying, especially between generations. This is important for online instructors, as older demographics are becoming increasingly more comfortable with technology and interested in taking online courses.

For any interested in designing a course for older audiences, or updating their current courses to be more user friendly, here’s what you should bear in mind.

Understand your demographic.

Let’s start with the term “senior citizen.” I prefer to handle this term delicately for a couple reasons. First, it encompasses an unhelpfully broad group of people—by some definitions, anywhere from age 50 up. Second, as a consequence of this wide range, many people (particularly on the younger end of the spectrum) baulk at the idea of that term being applied to them. After all, a person in their early to mid 50’s is at the peak of their careers. With retirement still a decade away, they can still justifiably qualify as being middle-aged.

That said, these learners still have expectations based on their generation’s experiences. In particular, attitudes about retirement have changed significantly between the Silent Generation and the Boomers who followed them.

Members of the former generation were the first in history to experience retirement en masse, and increases in life expectancy meant that they also have lived in retirement for many years. Having grown up in the Great Depression and lived through World War II, they spent their careers working hard with little expectation of fulfillment. In retirement, they’re more likely to seek intellectually stimulating courses.

Boomers, on the other hand, show little interest in complete retirement. Instead, they see their post-retirement years as a chance to shift their focus toward a passion project or a charity. They’re looking for courses with practical knowledge that will prepare them for a career change rather than a leisure course. They’re also more likely to understand and be comfortable around technology than their older counterparts.

How tech-savvy are older demographics?

Technical proficiency varies widely between any group of people. While stereotypes about younger generations being more technically literate than older generations are often true, they don’t apply equally to individuals.

That said, the older your audience is, the less likely they are to be completely comfortable in an online environment. Someone who retired fifteen or twenty years ago might have left the workforce before the Internet fully integrated with their working environment. While their daily lives may involve some time on the computer, many will need assistance to learn how to access material on your course.

If you’re creating an online course for a post-retirement audience, keep the technical knowledge necessary to succeed in your course to a minimum. Also, be considerate of the physical needs of your audience. Users over 70 will increasingly struggle with deteriorating eyesight and hearing. Many may have motor control difficulties making it harder to click on buttons. Offer subtitles and captions on audio/visual content, and increase the click range around your buttons so that they’re easy to use.

On the other hand, someone on the verge of retirement has spent a good twenty years (easily half their career) in an increasingly Internet-based work environment. While many of those people might have held jobs that did not rely on significant computer use, it does mean that the general technical proficiency of older demographics increases with each passing year.

Even so, provide as much clear instruction in using your course as possible. Most younger generations will already have taken at least one online course, or will have had to submit coursework online for school. For an older learner, this might be their first experience. If you assume your learners will naturally know how to use your course, you’re more likely to turn some away.

Is your course for business or pleasure?

The motivation behind most online courses usually boils down to one of two things: either the learner wants to gain a skill to advance their career, or they’re indulging their curiosity.

The difference between these motivations affects what each learner expects to gain from the course. A recently-retired person interested in exploring a new career that appeals to a long-held passion has significantly different needs than someone in their late 70’s taking an art history course for personal enrichment.

For the former, an online course designed to equip a learner for the workforce will benefit from an extra focus on any relevant technology and industry developments from the past few years. For instance, someone who retired three years ago and has recently decided to re-enter the work force may be a little behind on the latest tools.

On the other hand, learners attending your course to scratch an intellectual itch have significantly less need of training in practical application than their business-oriented counterparts. If you’re offering a course on, say, organic gardening and have to choose between developing a module on how to create your own organic fertilizer or how to seek FDA approval to sell organically-grown produce, the former will be of more use to the learner-for-pleasure.

Expect the senior market in online education to grow.

Online education opens a variety of opportunities for almost any audience, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that people in their 60’s, 70’s, or even their 80’s have both the interest and the ability to engage with an online course. After all, many of them have plenty of time to participate in such a course, and are eager to keep their minds active.

Meanwhile, many of those currently nearing retirement age show little interest in complete retirement. Instead, they want to transition away from the career that has paid their bills for the past thirty or forty years and into an occupation that more closely aligns with their interests. Doing so will almost certainly require more training.

If you’re an online education provider, senior citizens are a market worth targeting. But even if you’re designing courses for a general audience, it’s important to remember that the people taking your course might be older than you expect. They might appreciate larger text, printer-friendly PDFs, large buttons that are easy to click on, and subtitles on your video content.

It only takes a little extra effort to make those adjustments. And in doing so, you could open your program up to a whole new audience.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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