Use it or lose it – the ageing activist

| December 8, 2017

Some years ago I decided to take a break from computing and do something completely different. I joined an organisation which raised funds for community projects in schools, hospitals and so forth. We were sent out to this regional town and worked there for about six weeks, organising the locals into groups which then went out to do the actual fundraising – pledges of a regular amount over the next three years.


While doing that I decided to look more closely at the envisaged end result so I joined a Meals on Wheels group on a one day a week exercise. This project not only opened my eyes but profoundly shocked me. The majority of the people we were visiting were only a little older than myself. They spent their days doing nothing except watching TV or staring out of the window. Not one of them did their own gardening and only a few did their own shopping. Many started drinking beer before midday. Apart from being retired, all were able to do small tasks if necessary. I do not have the patience or expertise to get people out of that kind of rut and so stopped visiting after a few weeks.

When I retired, this exercise stayed with me and I vowed to do what I could to prevent others from going down that path. My expertise was in both analogue and digital computing and I was acutely aware that many people of my vintage were not computer literate, so decided to share my knowledge with others.

After the end of the Second World War, the French decided that they needed to save the accumulated knowledge database which had been severely damaged due to the number of their dead. They initiated the concept of the University of the Third Age (U3A) which was established to help members share their expertise in whatever area – science, gardening, languages, engineering, history – among others.

The idea caught on elsewhere and now, U3A’s are springing up everywhere. Each has its own areas of interest depending on the expertise of the local residents. My local U3A has 115 courses on a very wide-range of topics including a very Bonzai, French boules, walking and a vigorous and large geology group.

One thing which surprised me was the attitude of the students. My students are nearly as interested in what I teach as I am, so each week we can go on to bigger and better things. I also taught at a group about ten kilometers away with these students being quite interested but considering any homework was anathema. The information I could therefore get across was limited.

When I started teaching 12 years ago the obvious choices were Microsoft Word with a possible Excel or Powerpoint presentation. Many of my students claimed to know Word but just needed a bit of polishing up. It was a surprise to them to find that to learn Word thoroughly requires a six month course via Microsoft – there is a tremendous amount that can be done here. When they said “10 years’ experience” what they were actually saying was ‘six months knowledge repeated twenty times’.

Many of my students were purchasing digital cameras, so I arranged with the Corel company to teach one of their cheaper but excellent programs, Paint Shop Pro, giving the program to the students to take home. This really took off and the course was booked out for the ten years I taught it. We not only improved (read ‘forged’) photos but also learned about digital cameras and various ways of ‘improving’ a pic – the problems of colour and reproduction (on the screen or printed) and the best ways of transmitting the finished product to others – internet, digital printing, etc. One big surprise was why two different cameras produced identical pics but with differing hues.

As a tutor, I can only say that I have learned more by teaching others than I ever learned by working with companies in the computer industry. My community involvement has been hugely rewarding and I can only encourage others, in retirement and other stages of life, to get involved.

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Alan Stevenson spent four years with the Royal Australian Navy (electronics); four years at a seminary in Brisbane training for the clergy (not completed); for the rest of his life in computers – as operator, programmer and systems analyst for various companies. His interests are around popular science, travel, philosophy, reading and teaching computers (mainly Paint Shop Pro) at the local U3A. He is active in the Melbourne PC User Group and the Corel Down Under group.