“It’s not about the technology. It’s about what the technology can do for you,” says Tobey Dichter, founder and chief executive officer of Generations on Line.
In 1996, Tobey Dichter was visiting her daughter for Tufts College parents day when she first encountered something called the internet. This new tool was fascinating and novel. It gave you the ability to travel through time, space, and information. It presented a new world of opportunities and connections. Slowly, Tobey began to encounter the internet in her workplace and everyday life. She had always been passionate about older adults and recognized that the internet may be especially helpful for them: “Peter Drucker had written an article saying that ‘what the internet does is it eliminates space. It eliminates distance.’ So if you think of an older person, who may not be as mobile as they once were, eliminating distance is brilliant.”
The vast majority of those 65 and older were not online at the time — about 86% in 1999. Yet, as Tobey saw it, this age demographic could benefit most from the so-called information superhighway. And without the knowledge of how to access or use it, seniors were at risk of being cut off from resources and benefits as they transitioned to online formats. This led Tobey to leave her corporate career to found Generations on Line (GoL), an organization specifically dedicated to helping older adults use the internet.
Simplifying the Internet
Generations on Line’s work is simple to perceive but difficult to do: They create software that simplifies the internet. Developed with experts in older adult learning, this software is self-paced, self-taught, and designed for those with little to no experience using the internet. To do so, GoL deconstructs various online tools like telemedicine or Google, conducts usability studies to find out where stumbling blocks are, and creates tutorials to guide people through each tool. Then, the organization promotes the software and tools to whatever population might benefit from it — completely free of charge.
“Our software is for those people who are confused, intimidated, or just turned off by the complexities of the internet,” says Tobey. “If you were retired or if you weren’t in academia or a certain industry, you probably didn’t have an entrance ramp to using technology. And what seems so intuitive to other generations is really very difficult for these people.”
At GoL’s national launch on September 7, 2000, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and the mayor of Philadelphia promoted digital inclusion for seniors by asking children to send emails to their grandparents. Soon afterward, they were receiving interest from around the country. The need was evident, and GoL had the tools to help. Since then, Generations on Line’s software has served over 200,000 people across the U.S. and other English-speaking nations!
Making an Impact
Much like CTN’s partnership model, GoL works with local organizations to understand a community’s needs and tackle particular problems. They have collaborated with a range of institutions — including senior centers, libraries, assisted living and retirement centers, and subsidized housing — to promote their services to the populations who are most difficult to reach. CTN is one of these thousands of organizations to benefit from GoL’s software. Over the years, our learners have used GoL’s applications to build their digital skills and practice outside of class.
In addition to these partnerships, GoL also offers services to individuals directly. Their application is available in the Apple and Google Play stores, as well as a version for the web and for the Amazon Fire tablet. They also offer more topic-specific tutorials. These tools can help older adults seek employment online, navigate telemedicine, find and read local online newspapers, and learn how to locate and register for COVID vaccinations or boosters.
As a pioneer in the field of digital literacy, Tobey remains motivated by her affinity for the underdog. Long before terms like digital equity or digital inclusion were coined, Tobey felt driven by the inherent injustice of keeping people from resources that others have access to. “If everybody else is having a conversation, but you can’t join, that’s unjust,” she reflects. “In our society, there’s already ageism. There’s an assumption that you’re too old, so you’re not going to be able to learn. Thinking about the underdog, the poor person who says, ‘I would love to be part of that,’ or ‘I’d love to get that coupon,’ the people that need access to things that they used to do on paper … It just makes sense to help these people.”
Recently Tobey was awarded the Digital Equity Champion Award at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance annual conference. She couldn’t be more deserving of the honor, and we continue to be inspired by her ongoing commitment to making the internet inclusive to all!