Perceptions of computer learning among older Americans and older Chinese
First Monday

Perceptions of computer learning among older Americans and older Chinese by Bo Xie



Abstract
This study examines, compares, and contrasts older Americans’ and older Chinese’s perceptions of computer learning. Semi–structured, open–ended interviews were conducted among members of two senior–oriented computer training organizations: SeniorNet in the U.S. and OldKids (lao xiaohai) in China. Major findings include: first, American and Chinese participants share a similar, strong interest in learning in general and computer learning in particular, because they agree that computers present constant mental challenges and thus are useful for keeping the mind active, which suggests a non–culturally specific phenomenon. Second, for American participants, the computer is one of many means to keep the mind active, while for Chinese participants, the computer is the most important means to this end. Finally, for some older Chinese participants, computer learning is perceived as a means to fulfill old dreams that were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, suggesting a culturally specific phenomenon. Implications and future research questions are discussed.

Contents

Introduction
Computer use, computer learning, and well–being in later life
The present study
Method
Similar perceptions of computer learning: A way to keep the aging mind active
Older Americans: The computer as one of many means to keep the mind active
Older Chinese: The computer as the most important means to keep the mind active
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Similar to many other countries in the world, the populations of both the U.S. and China are aging rapidly (National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China, 2001; U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). This aging trend is coincident with the dramatic development of computers and the Internet in both countries (China Internet Network Information Center, 2006; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002). Although in both the U.S. and China older adults’ use and adoption of these new information and communication technologies (ICTs) still lags behind that of younger people, the numbers of older American and Chinese Internet users have been growing steadily and rapidly (China Internet Network Information Center, 2006; Fox, 2004). In a time when society is becoming more and more reliant on computers and the Internet, it is imperative that older adults learn to use new ICTs so that they can also take advantage of the rich opportunities and resources provided by these technologies. In this context, older ICT users’ experiences with, and perceptions of, computers and the Internet are especially valuable in that they may help educators, designers, and policy makers to develop interventions that can better serve older users and also motivate and allow older non–users — who currently constitute the majority of the older population in both the U.S. and China — to learn to use new ICTs.

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Computer use, computer learning, and well–being in later life

Compared with the vast body of research on the societal impacts of new ICTs, existing research on older adults’ use and adoption of computer technology is relatively scarce and is generally limited to a small number of subjects (for a review, see Xie, 2003). The impact of computers and the Internet on older adults’ psychological well–being (PWB) is one of the few subjects that has received some attention. Although a causal relationship between older adults’ computer use and well–being cannot yet be well established based on existing findings (Dickinson and Gregor, 2006), empirical evidence does suggest that computer use is positively associated with older adults’ PWB (for a review, see Xie, forthcoming). However, it is important to note that existing research tends to disproportionately focus on the impact of computer use on negative affects — most often depression and/or loneliness (e.g., Danowski and Sacks, 1980; McConatha, et al., 1994; White, et al., 2002; White, et al., 1999). Although there is preliminary evidence that computer use is also positively associated with learning and mental abilities, self–confidence, and sense of control (Blit–Cohen and Litwin, 2004; Eilers, 1989; McMellon and Schiffman, 2002), these findings have not yet been systematically examined.

This current trend of research on older adults’ computer use and PWB is not well grounded in the general literature on PWB, which has reached a consensus that PWB is multi–dimensional (for reviews on this and related concepts such as subjective well–being and quality of life, see Borglin, et al., 2005; Diener, et al., 2003; Hass, 1999; Keyes, et al., 2002; Lawton, 1983; Ryan and Deci, 2001). For instance, Lawton (1983) suggests that there are four separate dimensions of PWB, including negative affect (e.g., depression), positive affect (a feeling or emotional state of active pleasure), happiness (a cognitive evaluation of positive affect), and congruence (between desired and achieved goals). Ryff (1989) develops a six–dimensional model of PWB which includes self–acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth. Ryff’s empirical research shows that this six–dimensional model covers key aspects of positive psychological functioning that had been ignored previously (Ryff, 1989; Ryff and Keyes, 1995). Keyes, et al., (2002) argue that PWB emphasizes human potential in that it “entails perception of engagement with existential challenges of life” [1].

After reviewing existing research on older adults’ computer use and well–being in the context of the broader literature on PWB, it becomes clear that the impact of computer use on one particular aspect of PWB — personal growth — has not yet received much attention. Personal growth, or being willing to learn new things, open to new experience, and confront new challenges, and continuing to develop one’s potential or self–realizing, is a key indicator of PWB (Ryff, 1989; Ryff and Keyes, 1995) and thus must be taking into consideration when studying the impact of new ICTs on well–being. An important reason that this particular aspect of PWB has been understudied or even ignored so far is that previous research typically did not make a clear distinction between computer use (that is, using the computer for information, communication, and/or special tasks such as online shopping after the individuals have learned to use the technology) and computer learning (i.e., learning in itself or, more precisely, learning new skills in general and learning computer skills in particular). In other words, existing research tends to focus on how older adults can make use of new ICTs for information (e.g., health information), communication (e.g., exchanging e–mail with family and friends), and specific tasks (e.g., online shopping) after they have learned to use the technology. The possibility that the learning aspect might be beneficial for older adults’ well–being has not yet received adequate attention.

This current trend in research on older adults and ICTs is inconsistent with the growing literature on learning in later adulthood or lifelong learning, which has reached a consensus that learning is important for the well–being of older adults (World Health Organization, 2002). For instance, research suggests that learning in later life can compensate for negative changes associated with the aging process (Hooyman and Kiyak, 1999; Schneider, 2003), and help older adults stay physically and mentally healthy and socially active (Dench and Regan, 2000; Duay and Bryan, 2006; Purdie and Boulton–Lewis, 2003). While a survey study of older Australians reports that health and attitude to learning are perceived as the two most important factors in active aging (Boulton–Lewis, et al., 2006), another survey study of older Japanese reveals that the majority of the participants have learning needs (Hori and Fujiwara, 2003). A qualitative study provides preliminary evidence that learning is the common theme, or strategy, that is at the core of all three aspects of older Americans’ perceptions of successful aging, including engaging in social interactions and relationships, coping with life changes, being physically, mentally, and financially healthy. Learning is viewed as an effective means or strategy that can contribute to all three aspects of successful aging (Duay and Bryan, 2006). There is empirical evidence that older adults are generally interested in learning new things, including new technology such as computers and the Internet (American Association of Retired Persons, 2000; Boulton–Lewis, et al., 2006). Lessons learned from the literature on lifelong learning indicate a need for close examination of how computer learning may improve older adults’ well–being.

Another major limitation of existing research on older adults’ ICT use and perceptions is that it predominantly focuses on the Western context and often fails to situate computer use/learning in a comparative framework (note that all of the studies cited above were conducted in Western countries). As a result, little is known about how older adults’ use and perceptions of new ICTs might be different or similar in different national and cultural contexts, especially non–Western contexts such as China. Yet, how the technology is used, perceived, and appropriated in a particular context is to a great extent shaped by the social and cultural characteristics of that context (Kluver and Chen, 2005; Yang, 2003). Without an understanding of how and why computers and the Internet are perceived and used (similarly or differently) by older adults in various national and cultural contexts, it may be more difficult to identify the deep, structural factors that affect older adults’ computer use/non–use and well–being.

 

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The present study

In an attempt to address these gaps in the literature, this study compares and contrasts the experiences of older American and older Chinese computer users who are members of senior–oriented computer training organizations. The findings reported in this article focus on how older adults in different national contexts might perceive computer learning differently or similarly, and if and how computer learning might in some ways affect the well–being of older adults. By exploring the social and cultural factors that influence perceptions of computer learning, this study hopes to generate a deeper understanding of how computer learning may have different effects on the well–being of older adults in different national contexts. Due to the exploratory nature of this study, semi–structured, open–ended interviews were used in two convenience samples to collect data and grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Strauss and Corbin, 1998) was used to guide the data analysis. The goal of this article is not to generate generalizable conclusions but to examine the implications of qualitative evidence that raises new and important questions and issues, which can be further studied in the future using random samples to achieve representativeness.

 

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Method

Participants for this study were recruited using the snowballing technique from members of two senior–oriented computer training organizations: SeniorNet in the United States, and OldKids (lao xiaohai, which refers to active seniors and can be literally translated as “old kids”) in China (for a detailed description of the history and development of the two organizations, see Xie, 2005).

A total of 70 older adults — including 37 older Americans and 33 older Chinese – were interviewed for this study. The American participants ranged from 65– to 92–years old (M = 74.6, excluding three participants who refused to reveal their ages), while the Chinese participants were within the age range of 50–79 (M = 62.5). Seventeen (45.9 percent) of the American participants were female, and 20 (54.1) were male. Nineteen (57.6 percent) of the Chinese participants were female, and 14 (42.4 percent) were male. All but one American participant received at least some college education, including nine (24.3 percent) who received post–graduate degrees, 27 (73 percent) who received college degrees or some college education, and one (2.7 percent) who was high school educated. In comparison, twenty (60.6 percent) of the 33 Chinese participants were college educated, five (15.2 percent) high school educated, four (12.1 percent) technical secondary school educated, and four (12.1 percent) middle school educated. In terms of computer usage, most American participants had been using computers for more than five years, and some have even had more than ten years of experience with computers. Yet few Chinese participants had any prior encounters with computers until they started taking computer classes from OldKids two or three years prior to their participation in this study [2].

Semi–structured, open–ended interviews were conducted during the period of May 2004 to April 2005. Interview questions covered a variety of subjects, including: views about computers and the Internet, views about factors that contribute to aging successfully, views about learning in general and computer learning in particular, reasons for learning how to use computers, computer learning in relation to other activities, as well as demographic questions. Each interview lasted about one hour and was recorded using a digital voice recorder. An informed consent form was completed before each interview was conducted. Pseudonyms were chosen for participants who did not wish to have their names revealed. Data analysis for this study was guided by grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Strauss and Corbin, 1998), such that data collection and analysis occurred simultaneously to ensure the co–evolution of data and theory (for details of the data analysis strategies and procedure, see Xie, forthcoming).

 

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Similar perceptions of computer learning: A way to keep the aging mind active

This study finds that literally every older American and older Chinese who participated in this study showed similar, strong interest in learning in general and learning the computer in particular. For instance, a SeniorNet member states:

The computer is a big part of my life. I’m interested in it. I’m reading about it all the time. I try to keep up with it. I’ve always been interested in it. There are lots and lots of things you can do [on the computer]. At this point it’s really a large part of my life. I enjoy it. I like to discover things. You know, if you are not learning everyday, then you are dead. You have to try to learn something new everyday, you have to look at different aspects of things, and you have to have an open mind. That’s part of life. [Warren, SeniorNet member, male, 76, emphasis added]

In an almost identical tone, an OldKids member states her perceptions of learning in general and learning computers in particular in later life:

I really love to learn [new things]. I think that for seniors, the biggest fun is to learn something new. I don’t know why, but I just want to learn and I am happy whenever I’ve learned something new. For instance, I used to know nothing about computers. Now I know some. Now I can use Photoshop to make greeting cards, and I feel really good about it… It’s just, you know, it gives you some kind of happiness and enrichment. I think that when people grow older, we must, as long as our physical conditions allow, continuously learn new things… You need to keep your mind active so that you won’t get Alzheimer’s disease… Don’t stay at home and watch TV everyday. That’s meaningless. [Zhou, OldKids member, female, 66]

There is evidence that this strong interest in learning computers in not unique to the limited number of American and Chinese participants of this study. Rather, this interest is very common among the students who take computer classes from the SeniorNet and OldKids organizations. For instance, a SeniorNet learning center instructor speaks of the enthusiasm of older adults who come to the computer classes at her learning center:

The seniors are very eager, very anxious to learn the computer. They love the computer, and they are very eager to learn it. The enthusiasm is so outstanding. They are very, very eager. We start with a class called “Fundamentals.” It teaches the students who have never been exposed to a computer to use a mouse… After the class they just feel so wonderful because they had never been exposed to a computer before. They just feel a feeling of accomplishment. [Vivian, female, SeniorNet instructor, age refused to reveal]

Similarly, an OldKids instructor who has been teaching computer classes at OldKids since the very beginning and has taught more than 1,000 older Chinese over the past four years, says how much he has always been impressed by his students’ enthusiasm and interest in learning computers:

The students in my computer classes are very willing, very eager to learn about computers. They are very dedicated. I’ve had many students who come from far away to my classes – many of them live more than two hours away from the classroom, so they have to spend more than four hours on one round trip in order to come to my class, while each class lasts only two hours. They come to the classes because that’s what they really want to do. They sincerely want to learn about computers. I’m always very impressed by them. [Xiaofan, OldKids instructor, male, 66, emphasis added]

Why are these older Americans and older Chinese so interested in learning about computers? The interviews reveal that an important reason is that the computer is perceived by both the American and Chinese participants as a good tool for helping them stay active and interested and explore their own potential. To use one participant’s words, “A computer is a very complex piece of equipment. It’s an intellectual challenge for me to learn more [about it].” [Pat, SeniorNet member, female, 71] In other words, computers are highly valued by these older adults partly because the technology constantly provides new challenges that are needed for keeping the mind active in later life, as the following quotes indicate:

I think working with computers helps me stay more alive and interested in things. One thing is that computers always develop problems and you have to keep learning new things to keep them running. New and better programs come out and you learn how to do more things. The more you learn the more you are interested in what can be done… The Internet has unlimited resources that you can open. When you do, there is always a new area, to find and learn from. [Evert, SeniorNet member, male, 92, italics added]

I think we should keep busy and keep your mind active. Particularly, I think I’m really keeping myself alert by working with the computer and installing new programs so on, because every time you install a new program it’s a challenge, and you got to solve problems. So, it’s challenging; I think it keeps you sharp, mentally. [Isaac, SeniorNet member, male, 81]

Similarly, the Chinese participants also widely perceive the computer as something that provides constant challenges:

The computer is very complex. The more we’ve learned about it, the more we need to learn. For instance, first we need to learn typing and inputting Chinese characters. Then we need to learn to talk, chat, and sing [via instant messengers and online voice chat rooms]. To do so, we need to download and install the software. Also, we need to learn how to make pictures and animations on computers… You just can’t spend enough time on learning computers! [Xingyou, OldKids member, male, 62]

... older Americans and older Chinese who participated in this study have several things in common: first, they all have a great interest in learning new things in general and computers in particular.

Overall, these statements suggest that the older Americans and older Chinese who participated in this study have several things in common: first, they all have a great interest in learning new things in general and computers in particular. Second, the SeniorNet and OldKids instructors’ experiences with their students suggest that enthusiasm and interest in learning computers is not limited to the participants of this study. Rather, other members of the two senior–oriented computer training organizations also have great interest in learning computers. Finally, an important reason that these older adults are interested in learning computers is that they understand that the computer presents constant mental challenges and thus is especially suitable for keeping the mind active in later life.

 

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Older Americans: The computer as one of many means to keep the mind active

Although both the American and Chinese groups of participants generally perceive computer learning as a good way to keep the mind active, further analysis shows that the extent to which older American participants positively perceive computer learning is different from that of older Chinese participants. Specifically, although American participants generally agree that the computer provides an effective way to keep the mind active, they do not perceive the computer as the only means to achieve this goal. Rather, learning to use the computer is commonly considered by the American participants as one of many means to keep the mind active. For instance, a SeniorNet member who had been a mechanical engineer for most of his life and thus “greatly values technology,” says that technology — including the computer — is not the end of everything:

The technology is important, I’m not discounting them. But I just don’t think it’s the only thing that contributes to long life. I think attitude and inheritable characteristics play more important roles than technology. I’m not discounting technology. But I just think that it is not the reason for things. [Britt, SeniorNet member, male, 81, emphasis original]

Other SeniorNet members also point out that although the computer is an important tool to keep the mind active, there are many other activities such as going to church or working on crossword puzzles that can help achieve the same goal, as the following quotes indicate:

I think technologies can help older people because they keep older people interested. It helps broaden their experience… It’s probably a very important tool, but there are other ways. For instance, my church is as important as technology. So, there are a lot of ways to keep you active. [Belle, SeniorNet member, female, 75, emphasis added]

To have a long life, it is important to keep your mind occupied with something, to use your mind. Computers can surely make you think. But, there are different hobbies, like working on crossword puzzles, those kinds of puzzles are really good ways to keep your mind going, I believe. So, the computer is another tool to keep your mind active. [Stan, SeniorNet member, male, 71, emphasis added]

Interestingly, when further asked if there was any difference between the computer and other tools in terms of keeping the mind active, the American participants’ responses indicated that, in their view, the computer as a tool to keep the mind active was not much different from many other tools. For instance, one participant, who had been very interested in making stained glass for the first five years of his life after retirement and had since then changed to learning and using the computer and had been concentrated on the latter for almost 12 years, felt there was no difference between making stained glass and using the computer:

I think they [making stained glass and learning the computer] both require a lot of mental challenge. They are both intellectually stimulating. So, you know, there is really not that much difference [between them]. I stopped making stained glass because I ran out of space in my basement to put my stained glass and also I ran out of people to give my stained glass to, not because it was not mentally challenging. [D, SeniorNet member, male, 87]

... American participants generally perceive the computer as one of many means or tools that can help keep the mind active. In their view, although the computer is an important tool, it is not the only one.

These exemplary statements suggest that the American participants generally perceive the computer as one of many means or tools that can help keep the mind active. In their view, although the computer is an important tool, it is not the only one. Many other means or tools — e.g., making stained glass, genealogy, crosswords puzzles, and participating in church activities, as explicitly mentioned by some of the participants — can also provide continuous mental challenge to keep the mind active. Overall, it appears that the American participants are aware of the value of technology in general and the computer in particular, but they do not overemphasize technology. Rather, they acknowledge and appreciate the computer as one of many means that can help their minds stay active.

 

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Older Chinese: The computer as the most important means to keep the mind active

In contrast, the Chinese participants widely perceive learning and using the computer as the most important means to keep the mind active. More specifically, it appears that there is a hierarchy of activities among the Chinese participants: the computer is perceived as a fancy and prestigious thing to be engaged with and therefore is usually very high, if not the highest, on their hierarchy of activities. For instance, when asked why she chose to spend her time on learning computers instead of other things, one OldKids member responds: “Because it is fancy to learn computers these days.” [Yinyu, OldKids members, female, 60, emphasis added]

In contrast, playing ma jiang, a traditional — and still overwhelmingly popular — Chinese game that often involves gambling, is ranked low. For instance, an OldKids member, who recalls how boring and unhappy her post–retirement life was before she joined OldKids, explicitly expresses her strong dislike of playing ma jiang:

When I first retired [and before I found OldKids], I was bored and unhappy because I did not have anything interesting to do. I really didn’t want to stay at home all day; I just couldn’t do that. However, I didn’t want to go out to play ma jiang, either. That [playing ma jiang] is too tacky. I’m an old intellectual, after all. [Qinyang, OldKids members, female, 58]

And ma jiang is not the only thing that the Chinese participants find distasteful. Grand–child rearing is another common activity that keeps the majority of older Chinese busy after retirement. The Chinese participants of this study, however, have showed a consensus that taking care of grandchildren for their adult children is far less desirable than learning computers for their own enjoyment. For instance, a Chinese participant states:

Even after retirement, many seniors still have to take care of their grandchildren. It is a very sad thing. So I told my son: one generation is only responsible for the next one; please take care of your own child and give your mother some free time. Fortunately, my son is very understanding and supportive… Therefore, I have been able to spend so much time on the computer… [S, OldKids member, female, 56]

... when asked why she chose to spend her time on learning computers instead of other things, one OldKids member responds: “Because it is fancy to learn computers these days.

Interestingly, even activities that are normally considered good for health by most urban older Chinese – e.g., walking or dancing in parks in the early morning, or, to use Farquhar and Zhang’s (2005) term, common life–cultivation (yangsheng) practices — are not uncommonly perceived by this group of older Chinese as less desirable and attractive compared with learning and using the computer in the OldKids community. For instance, one OldKids member states:

I used to go to a nearby city park in the early morning to do some physical exercise. But, it’s really, really crowded there. During the peak hours [usually from 6 AM to 8 AM] you could barely find a place to set your feet, not to mention doing any exercise… So I stopped going there. Now I only go to our OldKids computer interest group meetings and I enjoy it. [Yitang, OldKids members, female, 55]

The interviews reveal that literally all Chinese participants of this study overwhelmingly view learning and using the computer as the best thing to spend time on in later life, while other activities (ma jiang, child rearing, or yangsheng) that are popular among the majority of older Chinese are generally viewed by this particular group of older Chinese as less desirable. Instead of being forced to engage in activities that are less desirable, these older Chinese have been actively and enthusiastically learning and using new ICTs, and, in doing so, finding a new and more desirable purpose in life after retirement.

Interestingly, further analysis shows that for many older Chinese participants, the desire to learn about the computer is also directly associated with the decade–long Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), which is a culturally specific phenomenon, as the following quote illustrates:

I like to learn computers, because after I retired, I’m gradually fulfilling the dreams I had when I was young. My dreams are becoming true — at a limited level, but they are nevertheless gradually becoming true. When I was little, I wanted to become a scientist. But the Cultural Revolution destroyed my dreams. Now I’m no scientist, but at least I know a little about high–tech computers. [Qinyang, OldKids members, female, 58]

Clearly, for older Chinese like Qinyang, the main reason for learning the computer is not only to keep the mind active but also to fulfill old dreams — old dreams that they had when they were young but that they were unable to pursue due to the Cultural Revolution [3]. These older Chinese’s experiences show that they are actively seeking/continuing personal growth and development after retirement, whether to explicitly try to stay mentally healthy or to fulfill old dreams (which, of course, unavoidably also lead to mental stimulation and health). By learning and using high–tech computers, these older Chinese have been broadening their knowledge, realizing their potential, and enriching their later lives.

 

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Discussion

This study finds that both the American and Chinese groups of participants — as well as their age peers who are also members of the two computer training organizations — have a great interest in learning new things and skills, and learning is commonly perceived by these older adults as a key component of successful aging. These findings are consistent with the general literature on lifelong learning that has documented older adults’ interest in and positive perceptions of learning (American Association of Retired Persons, 2000; Boulton–Lewis, et al., 2006; Chou, et al., 2003; Duay and Bryan, 2006; Hori and Fujiwara, 2003). In particular, both groups of older adults have positive perceptions of and are enthusiastic about learning to use computers and the Internet. These findings are consistent with the findings of previous research on older computer users in national contexts such as the United States (e.g., Bradley and Poppen, 2003; Bucur, et al., 1999; Campbell, 2004; Danowski and Sacks, 1980; Eilers, 1989; Furlong, 1989; White, et al., 2002), Israel (Blit–Cohen and Litwin, 2004), Australia (Barnett and Adkins, 2001; Cameron, et al., 2001), and New Zealand (White and Weatherall, 2000).

Although it is hardly surprising that these self–selected computer learners are enthusiastic about learning the technology, this study goes further by exploring the deep reasons behind the observed enthusiasm and interests. The reasons are two–fold: on the one hand, there is a consensus among these older adults that, in order to have a happy, long life, it is crucial to keep the mind active, which requires constant mental challenges. On the other hand, these older adults also widely agree that learning to use the computer is a complex task that provides continuous mental challenges, which is what they need to keep their minds active. In this sense, these older adults’ interest in computers and the Internet lies not only in the functions of the technology, but also the technology itself. In other words, different from existing research that has almost exclusively focused on how the informative and communicative functions of the Internet may affect individuals’ everyday lives (for reviews, see Bargh and McKenna, 2004; DiMaggio, et al., 2001; Wilson and Peterson, 2002), this study finds that the technology itself (as compared to the functions it provides) can be a useful tool for personal growth – which is a key component of well–being — in later life.

Despite the similarity in their positive perceptions of computer learning, the American and Chinese participants are different in the extent to which they positively perceive the technology. For older American participants, although the computer is widely perceived as an important means for keeping the mind active, it is far from the only activity that can achieve this goal. Many other activities — such as going to church, making stained glass, working crosswords puzzles, and doing genealogy — can also provide continuous mental challenges that are necessary to keep the mind active. For the older Chinese who participated in this study, however, the computer is clearly the most important — if not the only — means to personal growth in later life. While learning the computer is perceived by these older Chinese as a “fancy” thing to do, other major activities that are common among the majority of older Chinese, including ma jiang, yangsheng, and child rearing, are considered as far less desirable – even distasteful – by this particular group of older Chinese. Therefore, these older Chinese have been enthusiastically devoting their time and energy to learning computer technology while deliberately avoiding engaging in other activities as much as they could.

What factors may have contributed to this difference between the American and Chinese participants? One possible reason is that computers and the Internet, originally invented in the West, are introduced into Chinese people’s lives much later than that in the United States. While the technology has become more of an everyday routine in the lives of many older Americans, it is still a new and “fancy” thing to Chinese people, especially older Chinese whose adoption of the technology is even later than that of younger Chinese. A quick comparison between the findings of this study and that of a study conducted among SeniorNet members almost two decades ago (Furlong, 1989) appears to suggest that older Americans of that time were more enthusiastic about computers than the ones who participated in this study. In fact, the enthusiasm found in the Chinese participants of this study appears to be similar to that of older Americans twenty years ago. If older Americans’ enthusiasm has faded when the computer is gradually becoming a mundane technology, will the same thing happen in the older Chinese population? This question requires long–term examination.

Another possible reason that may explain older American and older Chinese participants’ different perceptions of the role of the computer is that older Americans, living in a more affluent country, have more choices than their Chinese age peers. Different from older Americans who have many keep–your–mind–active opportunities or organizations to choose from, older Chinese usually do not have so many opportunities from which to choose [4]. In particular, conventionally older Chinese are expected to be taking care of their grandchildren. As a result, in contemporary China the majority of older Chinese’s lives after retirement (have to) center around their grandchildren, instead of themselves. In fact, providing instrumental support to adult children, including raising grandchildren, is reported to be directly associated with older Chinese’s PWB. The same study, however, also shows that older Chinese parents who adhered to more traditional norms benefited more than their less traditional age peers from providing instrumental support to their adult children (Chen, 2000). Although it is not explicitly addressed in Chen’s study, this finding suggests that not every older Chinese parent would equally enjoy providing support to adult children. As the Chinese participants of the present study reported, their own personal growth in later life might weigh more than taking care of grandchildren on their PWB scale. The Chinese participants’ statements suggest that these older Chinese are beginning to resist and challenge the traditional expectation because they want to have more free time to do their own things and to enjoy their own lives, indicating a strong sense of independence and autonomy, which is important to well–being (Ryff, 1989).

In short, different from the American participants who appear to value various activities equally, the Chinese participants clear have a hierarchy of activities or pastimes that guide their choice of how to spend their free time after retirement. This observed difference raises more questions for future research. In particular, what are older non–users’ views of the computer as compared with other common activities? Do older American non–users also perceive the computer as one of many means to well–being but they, different from the American participants of this study, choose to focus on other means instead of the computer? Or do older American non–users view the computer as less efficient than other activities in keeping the mind active? Do older Chinese non–users also view the computer as a new and fancy thing? Or do they have negative opinions about the technology? Do they also have a hierarchy of activities, except that, different from their Chinese age peers who do use the computer, the computer is low while other activities such as ma jiang, child rearing, and yangsheng are high on the non–users’ hierarchy of activities? These questions deserve further attention.

Another interesting finding of this study is that, although the Chinese participants commonly perceive learning the computer as a way to keep the mind active, to some of them, computer learning is viewed as a means to fulfill old dreams that were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Why do some of the Chinese participants and not others perceive computer learning in this way? Here the age difference, combined with the timing of the Cultural Revolution, appears to provide a good explanation (note that Zhou is eight years older than Qinyang). For older Chinese of Zhou’s age or older (generally speaking, those who were born before 1944), “fulfilling the college dream” is not a concern because by the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (in 1966) they had already completed their four–year college education. Without this concern, and perhaps also because of their relatively older age, not surprisingly, seeking mental stimulation becomes a more direct reason for them to learn and use new ICTs. For older Chinese of Qinyang’s age or younger (generally speaking, those who were born after 1944), however, things did not go so smoothly. Due to the interruption of the Cultural Revolution, the majority of these older Chinese were unable to complete high school or even middle school education, not to mention receiving a college education. By the time when the Chinese educational system finally returned to normal (in 1977), most of them had already had families, children, and work responsibilities and no longer had the free time and energy to pursue higher education (Jiang and Ashley, 2000; Zhou and Hou, 1999). Fortunately, after retirement, these older Chinese finally have the opportunity to do what they truly desire — which, to older people like Qinyang, is primarily to learn about new ICTs.

In comparison, none of the American participants mentioned the influence of any major social and political movements on their desire to learn about computers. This is understandable given that there were no social changes comparable to the scale of the Cultural Revolution that interrupted the education of the current generation of older Americans. This difference raises another interesting question: for older adults in other national contexts, if their formal education was also interrupted by some major, destructive social changes during their youth, would they also perceive computer learning in a way similar to older Chinese like Qinyang? In a study of older Israeli computer users and non–users, researchers mentioned briefly that the education of the majority of the current generation of older Israelis “was cut short due to years of war and migration” [5]. Although this Israeli study did not provide any accounts about the motivations of older Israeli computer users, it does remind us of the existence of older adults in other national contexts who have similar experiences than older Chinese like Qinyang. In future research it will be interesting to compare and contrast older adults’ use and perceptions of computers from this new perspective to see if the fulfilling–old–dream perception is unique to a particular age cohort of older Chinese computer learners, or if it is indeed common to computer learners worldwide who have similar life experiences.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

This study shows that there are both similarities and differences between the American and Chinese participants’ perceptions and use of computers and the Internet. These findings echo a study of the aging experience in Shanghai and Canada, which reports that there are both “cross–cultural universals” and “cross–cultural variations” in older adults’ aging experience in the two contexts (Chappell, 2003). When technology is added to the picture, as reported in this study, the results are the same: while both the Chinese and American groups of older adults have great interests in computer learning as a means to personal growth, suggesting a non–culturally specific phenomenon, there are culturally specific phenomena as well. This is illustrated by the fact that, to the American participants, computer learning is just one of many — equally useful – means to personal growth; to the Chinese participants, however, computer learning appears to be the most important means to the same end. These culturally specific phenomena result from the differences in a number of factors (e.g., economic development, political systems, and historical events) between the two countries. The findings of this study highlight the importance of paying serious attention to the diversity of the older population. Although it is often treated as one social group, the older population is in fact a very diverse one and therefore it is important to take into consideration various differences — e.g., culture and age — among older adults (Xie, 2003). When studying the impact of the Internet on older adults, it is important to keep in mind that “the older population” includes individuals who have diverse characteristics and therefore the impact of the Internet on these individuals may be different as well. End of article

 

About the author

Bo Xie is an Assistant Professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland. She received her Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Medicine and a Master’s degree in Psychology.
E–mail: boxie [at] umd [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

The findings reported in this article are part of a larger research project that examines the impact of the Internet on older Chinese’s and older Americans’ civic engagement, social relationships, and well–being. The larger research project was supported by the National Science Foundation (SES–0431373). The author would like to thank Ken Fleischmann for his constructive comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.

 

Notes

1. Keyes, et al., 2002, p. 1007.

2. Differences in the demographic characteristics of the older Americans and older Chinese interviewed in this study are likely due to differences between the populations of SeniorNet and OldKids members, as well as differences in the national contexts. For example, while the average age of the Chinese participants is 12 years younger than that of the American participants, this is likely due to differences in life expectancies, retirement policies, and different understandings of what ages are defined as ‘old’ in the U.S. and China. Educational differences between the American and Chinese participants are likely due to the different educational opportunities available to these older adults during their youth in the U.S. and China, respectively. Further, both SeniorNet and OldKids members appear to be relatively better educated than is typical for their age peers in the U.S. and China. Finally, the American participants have more experience with computers than their Chinese counterparts. This difference is most likely due to the later introduction and widespread adoption of computers in China, and both SeniorNet and OldKids members appear to have more experience with computers than the majority of their age peers in their respective countries.

3. During most time of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese schools at all levels were basically completely shut down and the annual national college entrance examination was discontinued. As a result, for nearly 10 years Chinese youth did not have the opportunity to get into college.

4. In particular, participating in church activities, a major part of many older Americans’ lives, is not common in China due to government restrictions on organized religion.

5. Blit–Cohen and Litwin, 2004, p. 390.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 31 August 2006; accepted 17 September 2006.


Contents Index

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Copyright ©2006, Bo Xie, All Rights Reserved.

Perceptions of computer learning among older Americans and older Chinese by Bo Xie
First Monday, volume 11, number 10 (October 2006),
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