At the same time that humanity shifts toward digital ways of living and working, the proportion of senior citizens among the world's population is growing. Rejecting the idea that aging is just a matter of declining minds and bodies, iSchool doctoral candidate Noah Lenstra (MS '09, CAS '11) has explored digital literacy among older adults in Champaign-Urbana using information infrastructure theory and the extended case method.
For his dissertation research, Lenstra conducted one year of participant observation in senior centers and public libraries. This included two hundred and sixty-seven computer help sessions with two hundred and nine seniors; interviews with seniors and staff; and examination of institutional documents. Throughout this study he practiced the reciprocal research method.
Reciprocal research, devised in the Community Informatics Research Lab, entails providing service as you collect data and reporting findings back to community partners. Lenstra's reporting took place on June 26, just four days after his official (and successful) dissertation defense. It was attended by twenty-five local residents and community workers.
Lenstra's key finding was that older adults' digital literacy can be better understood as an informatics lifecourse. This new concept means that one's life consists of countless informatics moments—seeking and getting help with technology—and that the pattern of these moments depends on one's lifecourse; that is, how time, social location, and culture affect one's experience of each life stage. The informatics lifecourse in turn depends on community-based information infrastructure, such as senior centers and libraries. Lenstra found that struggle and negotiation gave rise to these institutions. He also discovered that embracing the agency of older adults and addressing concerns related to ageism can help reconfigure these crucial community institutions for an aging information society.
With respect to information infrastructure—a concept first advanced by former iSchool faculty members Susan "Leigh" Star and Karen Ruhleder—Lenstra's dissertation affirmed that it, too, is a result of productive power struggles by both individuals and groups—something not always perceived in workplace or research lab studies where employees are more constrained than local residents.
Advising Lenstra on his dissertation were Associate Professor Kate Williams (chair), Professor Linda Smith, Professor Michael Twidale, and Bo Xie (associate professor, University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing and School of Information).