Senior Citizens Learn Tech Tips from UT Dallas Tutors

  • UT Dallas grad student Pengfei "Emery" Liu helps Highland Springs resident Rosian Zerner learn how to better use her laptop.

When tech-savvy students at The University of Texas at Dallas recently visited a retirement community to help senior citizens navigate their tablets and smartphones, eager residents lined up with questions in hand.

Rosian Zerner, 80, who has lived at Highland Springs in North Dallas for two years, wanted to learn how to post photos to Facebook and use more of the apps on her tablet.

She also expressed a nagging problem: seeing “all sorts of pop-ups happen” whenever she opened up a website. She wanted her student mentor, Pengfei “Emery” Liu, a graduate student in information technology management, to make them go away forever.

“Ah, it’s not happening now,” Zerner told Liu as they peered over the iPad screen. “It’s like when you go to the dentist and your tooth stops hurting.”

Bob Ganss, 79, waited his turn for finance freshman Jermaine Phua to show him how to put email on his tablet and smartphone.  

“This is great, because it’s just been sitting in the drawer,” Ganss said of his iPad.

The UT Dallas students were giving their time and expertise as Tech Tutors, one of more than 100 events organized each year by the University’s Office of Student Volunteerism (OSV) to offer leadership and volunteer service opportunities for students. The tutoring event is part of the Good Neighbors Program, a partnership between UT Dallas and Highland Springs.

This is the greatest community service that UT Dallas could provide. … These students are very patient with us and very comfortable with the technology, which is what we need.

Bob O’Steen,
resident of Highland Springs

“Students are able to make personal connections with the Highland Springs residents,” said Tiffany Peart, OSV’s student program coordinator. “Answering technology questions may be the starting point, but conversations often grow organically during each session. Both the seniors and the students learn from each other.”

Students visit Highland Springs each quarter to provide technical help that is clearly popular with the residents. On a recent afternoon, three to four seniors showed up for every student who came to troubleshoot problems and answer questions.

Though Highland Springs has a computer lab for its residents, nothing beats one-on-one time with a mentor whose native language is social media, said Barbara Blachly, the facility’s community resources coordinator.

“This is really an asset to us. I think the residents like working with young people, and many of UT Dallas’ international students seem to have a culture that honors their seniors,” Blachly said.

JoAnn Wright, 85, took notes as Anmol Sarin, a mechanical engineering graduate student from India, instructed her on how to send a text message, send photos and talk to Siri on her iPhone.

“Two years ago my daughter gave me an iPad, the next year she gave me an iPhone. I didn’t learn either of them. Now this poor human being is helping me out,” Wright joked.

She practiced talking into her iPhone, to ask Siri about the population of Mexia, Texas.

“You have to hold down the button when you talk,” Sarin reminded her.

Some seniors said they don’t like asking family members for help with technology questions because their children lack sufficient patience for the task.

Bob O’Steen, 76, said his daughter just ends up taking his Verizon mini-tablet and downloads an app or figures out a problem for him. Instead, he wants to learn how to do those things for himself.

“I don’t learn by her doing it. I learn by me doing it,” O’Steen said.

“This is the greatest community service that UT Dallas could provide,” he said. “With elderly people, change is difficult to comprehend, much less to learn. These students are very patient with us and very comfortable with the technology, which is what we need.”

At a nearby table, O’Steen’s wife, Patty, praised Zoe Zhao, a graduate student in supply chain management, for her “awesome” help with a new iPhone.

“Apple can only take me so far. Here, I can ask questions I’d be intimidated to ask anywhere else. I think I’ll be using their help every time they come,” she said.

Indeed, residents learned that no question was too small.

Zhao offered an easy solution when an icon wouldn’t respond after O’Steen pressed down on it firmly with a stylus.

“A lighter touch is what you need. Just tap it,” Zhao said.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].