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Computer Coding and Seniors

In the first known study of older adults learning computer programming, a cognitive scientist from the University of California San Diego analyzed the learning experience and motivations of people between the ages of 60 and 85.

The 504 subjects came from 52 countries. Some were retired and semi-retired, while others were working.

The scientist, Philip Guo, studied users of pythontutor.com. A web-based education tool that Guo started in 2010, Python Tutor helps those learning to program visualize their work. Step by step, it displays what a computer is doing with each line of code that it runs. More than 3.5 million people in more than 180 countries have now used Python Tutor, including those around the world taking MOOCs (massive open online courses).

What Guo discovered: Older adults are motivated to learn programming for a number of reasons. Some are age-related. They want to make up for missed opportunities during youth (22 percent) and keep their brains “challenged, fresh and sharp” as they age (19 percent). A few (5 percent) want to connect with younger family members.

Reasons not related to age include seeking continuing education for a current job (14 percent) and wanting to improve future job prospects (9 percent). A substantial group is in it just for personal enrichment: 19 percent to implement a specific hobby project idea, 15 percent for fun and entertainment, and 10 percent out of general interest.

Interestingly, 8 percent said they wanted to learn to teach others.

Topping the list of frustrations for older students of coding was bad teaching. That was mentioned by 21 percent of the respondents and ranged from the use of jargon to sudden spikes in difficulty levels. Lack of real-world relevance came up 6 percent of the time. A 74-year-old retired physician wrote: “Most [tutorials] are offered by people who must know how to program but don’t seem to have much training in teaching.”

Guo, who is currently working on studies to extend coding education to other underrepresented groups, advocates a computing future that is fully inclusive of all ages.

“There are a number of social implications when older adults have access to computer programming – not merely computer literacy,” he said. “These range from providing engaging mental stimulation to greater gainful employment from the comfort of one’s home.”

By moving the tech industry away from its current focus on youth, Guo argues, we all stand to gain.

Guo’s study was recently awarded honorable mention by the world’s leading organization in human-computer interaction, SIGCHI (Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction).