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NOVA students bridge the gap for seniors learning to better use smartphones to stay connected


It’s 1:30 p.m. in a college classroom near Manassas.

“What are you doing there? I swiped up, do I need to swipe down?” asked a grey-haired lady to the woman sitting next to her.

“Did find yours? It’s in setup, I think,” said a man in the crowd.

About 80 people all holding their smartphones, the majority of them in their sixties and seventies filled two classrooms on Friday in Parrish Hall at the Northern Virginia Community College Manassas Campus.

They’re students in a one-day class called “Are You Smarter Than Your Cell Phone?” where they learned about their iPhones and Android devices: How to use them, how to silence them at night, how to turn them off when not in use to save energy, and how to use them to not only talk to loved ones but to send text messages and photos to family members.

The teachers of the class: Millennials, those know-it-all daily users of technology, internet whiz kids helping to bridge the gap between college students and those who grew up in a time when many never thought a powerful computer would one day fit into their pocket.

Dan Wannamaker is in his mid-seventies and attended Friday’s class. In the early 1960s, he was an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas.

“The university had a big mainframe computer. It was so big and got so hot it used to sit in an air-conditioned cooler locker and students not allowed to use the computer, only professors were allowed. Do you know why?” Wannamaker asked his student teachers who looked back at him dumbfounded.

To pay for the computer, the school would lease out time to the various corporations that didn’t have computers of their own. One corporate user was the Kansas City Power and Light Company, which used the machine for billing and other operations, explained Wannamaker.

If you were in the same room with the large machine you would want to wear a sweater, he said.

Wannamaker taught public administration at Western Kentucky University, a small teachers school, and worked for the federal government. The PC was introduced in his workplace when he was 35 years old.

Before retiring in the early 2000s, he worked with a team at the USDA working on a website purposed to ensure the public that the Y2K bug — the one that was supposed to cause worldwide computer failure — was not going to affect the shipment of food to grocery stores.

He wasn’t coding the site or writing the content, but he helped make sure the grocery stores’ responses to what they were doing to prepare for potential disaster were listed. Back then, if he had a technical question about the web or just about anything else tech, he’d walk over to a younger person’s desk, ask them how to fix it, and then write down steps so he wouldn’t have to bug them again with the same problem.

He came to the class on Friday because he said, “I wanted to know why my phone always turned black so soon. Then I learned that there is a setting that turns it off after not being in use after 15 seconds… I’ve been retired now for 14 years, things have changed, and I’m not in an office where I can walk over to another desk to have something fixed.”

We live in a time when things are changing faster than ever before. These types of classes do more than just teach seniors who to use their cell phones — they build a bridge to better understanding of two generations living in Prince William County.

“It’s always surprising the types of questions they have because we — the younger generation who’ve grown up with [techonlogy] — so it makes sense not to double click on everything, or that we can’t get wifi on our tablet to do GPS all the time while we’re traveling, everywhere we go,” said McKennah Blouin, 20, of Manassas, who led the class and his the campus’s honors club president. “It’s one of those epiphany-realizing moments that everything you take for granted isn’t what other people take for granted.”

Many of the questions asked by the retirees were about taking and sending photos to their grandchildren, and staying connected with loved ones on social media, said Blouin.

Kathy Hernandez, of Manassas, is about to take a three-week tour of Europe with stops in Spain, Portugal, and Morracoo. She uses her iPhone to read books and listen to audiobooks while she’s outside doing yard work.

She recently updated her phone to a newer model and had some questions about how to use the phone’s camera which, she plans to bring instead of a big DSL-R camera. This is the first time she’s attended a class taught by younger adults.

‘These ‘kids’ were very patient. They taught me at my level,” said Hernandez. “They realized I knew enough about the phone but not a whole lot they just said OK, let’s move onto this.”

In the early sixties, Wannamaker never thought the world would move on to something like an iPhone or Andriod device more powerful than the computer at the University of Kansas.

“In those days telephones came out of the wall and you didn’t take them with you. If you watched TV shows like Dragnet there were some phones in cars, but they were mostly radios,” said Wannamaker. “I guess if you were a fan of science fiction back in those days, and I was not, you could have seen it coming.”

The Lifetime Learning Institute at Northern Virginia Community College is geared to people over age 50 who want to continue their education through non-credit classroom discussions, cultural experiences, and social events with their peers. Members pay $110 annual membership fee and are able to attend speaker forums, themed parties, and participate in short overnight trips.

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