The Knowledge Volunteers

When Carlo Lamprecht, former President of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, gave the keynote speech at The Knowledge Volunteers (TKV) conference on September 21, 2012, all present were reminded of the tremendous value of building intergenerational bridges to ensure digital inclusion and to share human values.

TKV was conceived a year ago by Fondazione Mondo Digitale (FMD) to encourage active ageing and intergenerational learning. At the conference, the seven partners, from the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Romania, Switzerland and the UK, each confirmed that those aims are being met every step along the way towards next year’s project completion.

In each country, young tutors are teaching those over 60 to use information communications technology. The older generation, referred to by participants in the TKV project as “Generation Plus”, are then encouraged to pass their knowledge on to their peers, so forming a large network of volunteers of all ages for the dissemination and sharing of knowledge.

As she welcomed all guests to the conference, Mirta Michilli, Director General of FMD, explained that the European Commission had funded TKV through its Lifelong Learning programme in an effort to build up a better society. “Especially in cities,” she said, “there are few opportunities for the generations to come together. As well as ensuring that older people are digitally included, this programme helps to prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century by giving them the chance to use life skills and to face a professional environment.”

The knowledge exchange which is central to this programme perfectly matches the life skills and experiences of one generation with the practical abilities which seem to be easily acquired by another. As Carlo Lemprecht pointed out: “Use of computers and the internet seems to come naturally to our grandchildren, but we must remember that it was only 20 years ago that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the http code – the foundation of the World Wide Web – when working for CERN right here in Geneva. This cross-generational exchange builds bridges of both knowledge and human values.”

Members of Generation Plus whose working lives did not involve the use of information communication technologies, or ICTs, are often intimidated by computers and think that the technology is beyond their learning capacities. The TKV project overcomes this reluctance, however, by starting new learners with “the ABC of ICT”. This foundation course familiarises learners first with the essential hardware of the computer, such as the monitor, keyboard and mouse, and then with the fundamentals of its use. Step by step, the learners gain confidence in their interactions with the computer, until finally they are able to exploit their PCs for such activities as e-banking, e-shopping, booking travel and social networking.

At the conference, video testimonials were shown from project participants representing Generation Plus. One woman from Prague bought her first computer at age 70. “And now,” she said, “I can’t imagine life without it.”

A man, also from the Czech Republic, was forced by illness to take early retirement, and found himself feeling lost and alone when his wife was out at work. Having now received communications technology training through TKV, however, he says, “If I’m sick or can’t leave the apartment, the computer can help me to contact other people. I know there’s always someone out there to talk to.”

Also significant was the testimonial of the most senior member of Switzerland’s ICVolunteers team. 90-year-old Magda Boon-Dènes said she finds the internet a wonderful tool for looking up anything she might want to see, from a forgotten recipe to a video of Fred Astaire dancing.

The benefits to the young volunteers who are training the Generation Plus learners are no less significant than those that their older peers are enjoying. Mirta Michilli pointed out that the young volunteers are not only learning how to communicate their knowledge, but are also developing a sense of social responsibility.

François Ledoux of Intel Corporation, which sponsors the TKV project, praised the role of these and other volunteers in making our communities better places in which to live and work. “By donating their energy, time and professional skills,” he said,” “volunteers can establish a foundation of lifelong learning and social awareness that may not be achieved through standard educational practices.”

This was also stressed by Alfonso Molina, Scientific Director of FMD, who said that through volunteering we practice “the best dimensions of our humanity. Many of today’s young people, he said, “are not in employment, education or training, and social innovation is required to tackle the challenges with which they are confronted. At the same time, people are living longer, which means that the concept of ‘older’ is changing, and it is important to ensure that people are not digitally excluded once they reach retirement age.”

The TKV partners have enjoyed the on-going experience, over the past year, of transforming the theory of TKV into an actual working partnership between volunteers and learners, and have themselves learned a great deal as they tried to find solutions to the real social and practical problems which in some instances have threatened to derail their participation in the programme. In Greece, for example, the economic crisis has presented significant challenges to project partner 50Plus Hellas, but the enthusiasm of the young volunteers, teachers and learners has helped the course to carry on regardless.

“Nothing worked in Greece from July to September,” said Myrto-Maria Ranga, Project Manager at 50Plus Hellas, “but TKV has still been a tremendous success. We’ve had so many expressions of interest from members of Generation Plus that we’ve had to create a waiting list. Social inclusion is a human right and one of the goals of this project, and by working for and with older people, we are able to give a voice to a section of our society that could otherwise be marginalised.”

50Plus Hellas and other project partners found that it was important to involve public organisations in the programme from the start. “At the beginning,” Myrta said, it was difficult to persuade politicians of the potential of a project such as this one. Now, though, they understand the value of intergenerational communication, and are more willing to support our efforts.”

Project partners also learned the importance of flexibility in their approaches to the courses to accommodate the needs of the local participants. According to Raluca Icleanu of the Societatea Romana Pentru Educatie Permanenta (SREP) of Romania, “The structure of the courses must be based on the needs expressed by the target group. We make sure that we define course times and dates with our teachers and learners, taking into consideration where they come from and what time they finished school and work and so on. This ensures that our courses accommodate everyone’s needs, and we therefore have a very low dropout rate.”

The central role of communications technology in the 21st century was highlighted in the closing moments of the TKV conference, when ICV Executive Director Viola Krebs pointed out that all of the communication between the TKV partners had, until last week, taken place in a virtual environment. Viola invited all partners to sign a physical Memorandum of Understanding to commemorate the rare occasion of their meeting. The handshakes exchanged between the partners were a marked commitment to the continued success of this ambitious project.

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