11/20/2023 | By Annie Tobey

This unexpected teacher for senior digital literacy classes turned out to have some important pluses. Breanna Palmer of The Kansas City Star tells of a senior teaching seniors.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Charles Davis Sr., like many older generations, felt intimidated by the digital world and fearful of putting his trust in technology.

So, when he started working at the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, Davis, 64, enrolled in their senior digital literacy class. What he didn’t expect was to be asked to take on teaching the class after just a few sessions.

He described his initial reaction as complete shock.

“I was like, oh my God, no,” he said. Later, he decided to instead look at it as an opportunity to help other seniors embrace technology.

“I really started to embrace what my challenges were as an older adult about the experience and how to learn computers, and so what that entailed was, fear; second was asking questions so in that process I went through the journey of learning just the basic fundamentals,” Davis said.

But it was his first-hand experience of overcoming those obstacles that led to his effectiveness in teaching seniors how to conquer the digital divide.

“That right there was really the pushing point for me to start to have the empathy for others, because I first hand had experience on how that felt as a senior not really knowing this computer age — and experience how it felt to ask the questions to the younger generation,” Davis said.

It’s been two years since Davis was given that opportunity, and he credits the Urban League for taking that chance on him.

The Urban League is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, according to the National Park Service, and the Kansas City affiliate has been established in the area for over 100 years, serving underrepresented communities in the metro.

Marchel Alverson, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the Urban League, said the senior digital literacy program has been in operation for six years, and has been very successful for seniors in the Kansas City area.

One of the center’s goals is to make computer access available to everyone, in part because sometimes libraries aren’t feasible options due to transportation problems or other access issues, Alverson said.

“We wanted to give everyone access to computers. There’s this rumor that everyone has a computer, and that’s not the case – what we actually are having is like a digital desert, and digital equity is important to us,” Alverson said.

For article on senior digital literacy, a classroom of older adults in a classroom learning on computers
Phyllis Banton, 74, retired from the federal government after working as an administrative secretary. She said she plans to continue with the classes for as long as she can, until she starts attending school to get a degree.

Get them to engage

Davis prides himself in creating a comfortable learning environment for his students. He said this allows them to gain confidence when it comes to working with computers and other smart devices.

The key, he said, is to get them to engage.

“It is the skill to have – this class is designed for them to engage and also designed for them to read and the importance of paying attention to detail, so it’s a work at your own pace kind of opportunity,” Davis said.

For seniors like Phyllis Banton, 74, having access to this class has become an important part of her weekly schedule. She’s able to come in and work on her digital skills, but also be surrounded by friends who all share the same goal of learning to use the computer.

“The instructor is very nice and compassionate, takes his time with you. In college, that wouldn’t be there — it’s very inspiring because he keeps us encouraged. He said you can’t break the computer. The computer is waiting on you to give it the orders that you need. So this is why I like to keep coming,” Banton said.

Online safety is a big concern for many seniors in the class, and the first step when addressing this concern is tackling their fears.

Davis said it’s a process, and that you have to take the time to walk them through that, which requires patience. But, he said, once they reach a point of comfortability, he said it’s like a light bulb turns on and they just go.

It’s a skill these seniors recognize is vital in today’s world.

“Now, if you don’t know how to get on a computer, you are going to be lost in the world,” student Rebbecca Walcott, 79, said.

Older adults in a classroom working on computers
Charles Davis teaches the senior digital literacy classes two times a week. The center used to be able to hold the classes everyday but due to staffing shortages they had to cut down to two days.

Walcott said before coming to class said she was in the dark about how computers worked, and practiced caution when it came to trying to send or receive information online. Since coming to the classes, she’s been able to gain the skills to safely research, stay updated with news, and communicate with her children through email.

‘When we give, we learn’

Davis said this class gives seniors the opportunity to not only to grow their knowledge about computers and technology, but also helps them get out of their comfort zones and build their social groups again.

“I think this is the jewel in the sand, bringing them out because of the opportunity to engage with others – now they see a need to also educate each other. That was the highlight when I seen another senior helping another senior walk through the process,” Davis said.

Another positive – the class is free, Alverson said. He also noted the program not only helps seniors tackle the digital divide, but also helps job seekers and students from middle and high school who come in through Project READY and Act Now.

In “The State of Black Kansas City,” an equality index put out by the Urban League that compares the Black and brown Kansas City population to the white population on digital equity and other statistics, it said 32% of areas east of Troost lack internet access and 26% are without computers.

Davis said that underlies the importance of this program and this space for groups to come together to share knowledge. He pointed out that even as the teacher of the course, his students also teach him with the wisdom they share.

“It’s been a very impactful opportunity – you just see the genuine character and how it is very important that we never forget wisdom. They are the foundation, and so being able to have that opportunity to reach back into their world and receive some of that wisdom and knowledge is priceless,” Davis said.

A running joke Davis tells his students is, “Now, next week, you will teach the class.” While it may be a joke, he said he does look forward to seeing one of his students take over the course one day.

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FEATURE IMAGE, TOP: Charles Davis has taught senior digital literacy at the Urban League Greater of Kansas City for two years and previous was a student himself. Each class he said he takes the time to ensure he is creating an encouraging environment for all his students to thrive.

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey