Planet Talk: Abby Stokes, Computer Coach


Abby Stokes will talk about her book “Is This Thing ON?” at the Senior Planet Book Club on January 30. Click here for more details.

senior-planet-abby-stokesAbby Stokes is what’s commonly known as a digital immigrant. She wasn’t born with a mouse in her hand; she had to learn how to use computers later in life. And then even later, she taught her mother, who by that time was a senior.

That was 20 years ago, and since then Stokes has taught thousands of people how to get online, from retirees in senior centers to CEOs in their offices.

Stokes’s most recent book, “Is This Thing On?” – nicely subtitled “A Computer Handbook for Late Bloomers, Technophobes, and the Kicking & Screaming” – came out last year. It’s a revision of the original 2008 edition that updates a complete introduction to buying and computers with information on newer technologies like tablets, e-readers and smartphones. She talked to Senior Planet by phone from her home in New York City.

Tell us more about how you started out teaching computers to seniors.
I had a computer and my mother was intrigued, but not convinced it was for her. She had wanted to be a librarian but ended up having kids instead, so when I showed her that the Internet was her own personal library line, she was intrigued, and I showed her how to get online. The title of my book was originally going to be, “If my mother can learn the computer, anyone can.”

Your book is the equivalent of Computer 101.  Are these first steps enough for most of us, or is this only a beginning?
It’s a great first step for someone who’s new to computers, and to fill in the blanks for someone who’s never gone beyond the basics. A woman in Australia who had the book and no other help bought her first computer, set it up, turned it on and sent me an email. I almost cried.

What’s the biggest design issue with websites – one that can make using some sites harder than it should be?
It’s getting harder and harder. Sites are getting away from using English and are transitioning to using symbols, and that doesn’t work for someone who’s new to the technology.

Even as we learn to use computers, send email and surf the web, new technologies are taking over – can we ever catch up? And does it matter?
You have to relieve yourself of trying to keep up. If you used to have a VCR with VHS tapes, you don’t have to turn to DVDs. Stick with what you have until you think there’s a benefit that really suits you.

Tablets are becoming popular. Do you recommend them for seniors?
Tablets have fewer moving parts and there are fewer steps to learning how to do whatever you want to do on them.  For someone with dexterity issues, there are accessibility features like a stylus that make them easier. What you can’t do on a tablet is use a word processing program like Microsoft Word and a spreadsheet program like Excel. And for someone with vision problems, it can be an issue.

What’s the number one thing a novice can do to get comfortable with any new piece of digital technology – a computer, a tablet or a smartphone?
There are two things: One is changing your attitude to think of it as a toy, not as an enemy; that’s why I refer to the computer as a plastic box. The other is to take it in small bites. My mother would get on the computer 10 or 15 minutes every morning. When you build familiarity through consistent, small doses of use, it becomes habitual. In 20 years of teaching computers, I’ve never had anyone not be able to learn how to use it.

Tell us about your talk.
The talk I’ve been giving is about navigating the ever-changing landscape of technology – desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, e-readers; Wi-Fi or 3G; Mac or PC; what are the gadgets and activities you might be hearing about and aren’t sure what they are. I also want to address the notion of being an author; the evolution of the book from first contact with the publisher to its fruition. And I’m very happy to answer any questions that anyone has about technology.

Got questions for Abby? Ask them in the comments box below.


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