Is it ethical to push older people into an unsafe environment?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think the internet can often be compared to another era in history, where humans have gone into a world where laws and, really, societal norms, were not fully established or in the process of forming themselves. I’ve compiled my thoughts in the following essay, and I would be very interested in what you, dear reader, think about this!
world wide web
wild, wild, west?
Many of the strategies people use and problems they face through the Internet today can be compared to the challenges of the settlers in the North American Wild West Era from the early 17th century onwards, where a vast new continent lured explorers with the promise of gold and immense riches, just there for the taking – but reality turned out to be quite different. This age will serve as the backdrop against which we will undertake our own exploration of the state of the Internet and we will attempt to find out what enables older people to learn its’ ways.
The main goal of this essay is therefore to reflect on the question of how we can support the transition of the people on the borders of society, and of those especially the elderly, into the (to them) new and potentially hostile Internet environment. In order to do this effectively, we have to take a multitude of involved factors into account. This includes the people themselves, including their motivation, their abilities, the way that they learn and environments that could support them on their trek to settle in the great plains of the internet. Then we will move towards what the Internet actually is, and the factors that make it such a dangerous place to be in, as everyone leaves a trace of data that could be misused – whether one actually knows what one is doing or not.
Introduction: leaving the old world
The 21st century has witnessed the spectacular rise of internetworked machinery, spreading through and disrupting every single aspect of human life. The great information railway of the late 20th century ventures into the virtual world. Very few things compare to the grand journey into this ever-connected virtual space – where every single person with access can become your instant neighbour and almost every single question can be answered by providing the right keywords to a search engine. The gold-rush-like enthusiasm and optimism can fade within seconds though, when bandits are out to heist the Google Mail post wagon to steal your credit card data and read your love letters, or tricksters scam you out of your money using technologies you might have never even heard of – because, as Arthur C. Clarke puts it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
One of the first few big examples of where this digital revolution becomes tangible is for instance the rise of social networks from 2004 onwards and arguably the biggest success story so far, Facebook. But the revolution happens on a far more subtle level too – the physical bank cheque system now has an expiry date, forcing older people with no prior interest in using the Internet’s affordances into an environment where laws and law enforcement have not yet been fully established. What is physically the World Wide Web is from a perspective of law and societal order actually the Wild Wild West – everyone participating in it is only as safe as they can make themselves be, and tremendous conscious effort has to be spent to stay safe and protected. It is the people at the fringes of the digital society that are popular targets for scammers, fraudsters and the shadier parts of the internet. There is a huge and ever growing need for proper education to effectively and safely use the tools the Internet is made of, and this need is not very likely to decline with younger generations growing old – digital natives are native only to the technologies that exist already, and by far not all processes of daily life have been converted yet to fit the digital age.
Almost every aspect of human life will be affected by the shift towards an internet-centred society – digital and physical content distribution and trade are just a few examples. Effective lifelong learning has become even more of a key factor in the chase for making the best of the brief time humans spend on earth. This extends further than the obvious need for finding and keeping a job, or maintaining and developing expertise.
The old and the new
Age is not only accompanied by wisdom – it also comes with a decline in bodily and cognitive abilities . This does not mean, however, that older people can or do not want to use new technologies. Research into diffusion of innovations and technology adoption amongst older people  has brought to light that there is no age-related difference in the motivation to learn new skills – it is just that it takes longer to do so, as people are more and more set into their ways. Everett Rogers in his Diffusion of Innovation , very much the classical text on technology adoption in society, identifies different types of personalities in the process: innovators, early adopters, early and late majority and, of course, the laggards. Innovators are the ones who come up with a specific technology and initiate the change. The innovation is then picked up by the early adopters, a part of the population that is willing to invest in things that have not yet established themselves in societal discourse – that is, for instance, the state smart watches are at now. Eventually, when all these different roles of adopters have taken up the new technology, the market for this type of innovation is saturated. A very popular mistake that is being made when interpreting this model is to think that it is absolute, so to say that if someone is an early adopter in one particular case, they will be early adopters every time. There is no evidence for this to be the case, but this stance or school of thought is still very much present in popular culture. This is also one of the main reasons why, when we are thinking about old people, we tend to put them all into the “laggards drawer”. They are in fact no different to the general population – paraphrasing how Olson  has put it: if they see a benefit in a new technology, they are just as keen to learn how to use it.
What is an existing problem for them though is to find the right ways to support them in their learning process. They might not have access to more knowledgeable or experienced people in their social networks, making the task more daunting. And even if they have someone, that particular person might not be suited with the right skills to effectively transfer their knowledge. According to Cornwell et al. , older people experience a general decline in social connections the older they get –but one of the best ways to learn is to surround yourself with others who are in the same position or at the same level of knowledge – interested in doing something and trying to acquire a new set of skills, but not yet a “specialist” or expert in that field – one very popular example for this is 2013’s TED prize winner Sugata Mitras SOLE (Self Organizing Learning Environment) experiment, building on findings from his “hole in the wall” project, where poor children in slums in India were given undirected access to the Internet through a computer terminal . The positive effect of being surrounded by peers when learning is also emphasized by Rosenthal : Expertise often leads to a change in the vocabulary used, and laypeople find it hard to participate in discussions on the topic for that sole purpose. Drawing from the author’s personal experience when doing close user support with farmers who have bought automated cattle feeding systems, it is vital to adopt the vocabulary the users are using in order to be able to effectively help them.
Mental models – how do we tick?
Adding on to these insights, another important factor for technology adoption in older people is to draw in their motivations for learning a new technology. Often, a specific goal or use case can be identified, such as “I want to be able to send emails to my friends” or “I want to be able to check the weather reports and the local news on the Internet”. These defined and fairly isolated activities often serve as the jumping boards into richer interactions, as they are the vessels to teach the most basic interaction methods like using the mouse, single- and double-clicking, typing on the keyboard, all of which are necessary to achieve the previously defined higher goals. Kieras & Bovair  found that these mental models, knowledge and skills acquired can speed up and ease knowledge transferred and used in other domains, with the motor skills of older people being no exception, according to Seidler . Someone who is able to use a search engine interface like Googles will also be able to use others like www.duckduckgo.com (which does not track users). They might even be able, since the mental model of search in software systems is already in place, to recognize it in other contexts as well – one very successful example for this is the search field in the top right corner of most Internet browsers. It was so successful and ubiquitous amongst all popular web browsers that Microsoft decided to implement their Windows Explorer search feature like that, starting with Windows Vista. Reusing these types of common interfacing methods and refraining from reinventing the wheel makes the process of learning how to use new technologies easier – not only for older people, but for all of us.
Technology generation effect – reusing what is already there
Christopher Lim  has posed an interesting concept he calls the “technology generation effect”. Its essence is that the rapid development of technology over time has left us with a fragmented society, split up in age generations and technology generations, according to which technologies have been available or widely used during the formative years from 10 to 25 of a person’s development. People’s experiences and the mental models acquired in these years tend stay with them over their lifetime and therefore influence learning and uptake of new skills. Familiarity with technological concepts, Lim argues, should be used to inform more inclusive design approaches that would cater for the needs of older people too.
More than just steam
One big impact of the shift towards the digital is that with most old technological or mechanical artefacts, the inner workings and mechanical parts were either directly visible (think wall clocks) or easily accessible for maintenance. Users were therefore able to directly see how sturdy or fragile something was built and how careful they would have to be when using the tool. There was therefore a good chance of being able to tell which part of a machine was broken – and the possibility to repair and fix things yourself. Digital Technologies usually do not provide these affordances – due to devices getting smaller and smaller they indeed are becoming less and less repairable. This leads to further problems for older people when interacting with physical devices – there is no way to tell how it works from the outside, or how hard or soft you have to push to start a certain process.
The lack of these visual and tangible feedbacks often leads older people to overly careful and cautious handling of devices they have not yet had as much exposure to – for instance, tablet PCs and smartphones. The fear of “breaking something” and not being able to fix it without the help of someone else impedes a playful approach to interacting with technology, and therefore prevents serendipitous learning experiences that are vital to success in learning how to use technological artefacts to the full extent of their possibilities.
New saloons in old schools
A key challenge is how is this trust regained or, if it does not exist in the first place, established? Social Cognitive Theory states that people’s attitudes are formed by the persons themselves, their behaviour and their environment. For the purpose of this essay, we will be focussing on the environment. Literature suggests that older people do not have access to computers in the same multitude of ways the younger generations do – this is where the environment factors in. While there have been some initiatives focussing on enabling older people with access , for instance in elderly care homes, and the European Union’s interest in tackling the demographic challenge  focusses on older people and introducing them to the WWW. Still, much headway remains to be made – how will this best be done?
One increasingly popular answer to this question is to provide Word Wide Web access to ICT for groups of older people through hack spaces, charities and volunteer organisations. A novel approach to hack spaces implementing this has developed in Austria over the last four years – they are called open technology labs and go by the moniker of OTELO . Hack spaces generally provide people with ideas with the space and support needed to work on them and make them reality. But how is OTELO different from hack spaces? For one thing, OTELOs are usually supported by the councils they are placed in, meaning they are provided with spare rooms or houses owned by municipalities, free heating and Internet access, and a kitchen. They are used from people at all ages and from the most diverse professional backgrounds, whereas hack spaces are usually populated by a more IT-affine audience. The only thing that is being asked of OTELO for in return for the use of the space is to do workshops or equivalent activities to make the personal talents and knowledge gained available to the general public, typically once a year. This can happen in a variety of ways, some of which are laid out below:
Take it to the blacksmith – learning by repairing
One very popular workshop format commonly hosted by the different regional OTELOs is repair cafes (http://repaircafe.org). The main idea of those is to get people who know how to fix things together with people who need things fixed – and add in coffee (or tea). The atmosphere created through this inclusive approach promotes the exchange and transfer of knowledge, so people who want to learn how to exchange a broken screen on a smartphone can do so hands-on under the supervision of experts. As important as the getting broken things repaired is that attendees get to know experts they can later ask for help as well – this could eventually lead to the development of more effective social networks of knowledge for older people, which are of special importance in more rural areas.
Another, more knowledge-transfer-focused OTELO workshop format is called “ask a freak”. They are Q&A sessions with subject experts in the community to answer questions relevant to their fields of expertise. Topics covered this way have ranged from industrial food processing to vegan lifestyles, from smart phones and mobile computers to functional or “breathing” clothes. These events serve two purposes: From the perspective of the participant, people who have questions about certain topics are provided with the opportunity but have no one to go to in order to get them answered in person and in a relaxed atmosphere, without the need to travel far. For the specialist hosting it, they have a chance to receive the recognition they otherwise might only get in their work context, and to “set things straight” – citing the industrial food professional when talking about the recent shift and public outcry when Stevia, a new and supposedly natural sugar substitute was introduced in the Austrian market.
It is groups and events like these that could profoundly change older people’s perception of and attitudes towards technology, soothe any uninformed fear of change or at least replace it with the warranted respect. Metaphorically, they are the call to circle the wagons in the great journey through cyberspace. But what exactly is the cyberspace, and where did it come from?
The uncharted lands – the west
The rolling stone that is the development of the Internet was kicked loose by military interests. Building on the second-world-war pioneering work of Claude E. Shannon, who developed information theory and cryptography as a by-product of working on aircraft flight path prediction in order to build missile guidance systems , to the invention of the Internet itself as a remnant of the cold-war military development with its fear of a global nuclear war, it was designed as a fault-tolerant, scalable communication infrastructure for US military bases in close cooperation with research institutes. The ARPANET was designed in a way that even if one of its nodes was to be wiped out by a nuclear strike, the network itself would be able to operate and transmit messages and commands. Such networks always profit from having as many nodes as possible, so in hindsight its growth seems inevitable – but the extent of its global success and impact on the everyday life of the world’s inhabitants is unprecedented.
The first settlers in these previously unknown virtual lands were researchers. Tim Berners Lee, while working at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva proposed in 1989 what would later become the World Wide Web with a system of hyperlinked text documents. In 1993, the Acceptable Use Policy which originally prohibited commercial use of the Internet was reinterpreted to allow exactly that . Envisioned as a two-way communication tool between web servers and clients, it took more than five years for what was coined “web 2.0” by the publishing company O’Reilly (who are also the company that inspired the emerging “maker movement” through its make magazine) to emerge – a Internet whose content was not only consumed, but also created by its users. This development also paved the way for the abundance of social media websites. Social media primarily works through providing humans with what they crave most – social connectedness with and (quantifiable) recognition from their peers. The information gathered from people feeding this basic human need is, comparable to the gold rush in the Wild West era, the current rush that drives and fuels the development of social media right now. The social connectedness provided by the Internet is also the main factor for older people, who might experience feelings of loneliness, isolation and “being left out”, to venture into the web .
The wild in the west
But the Internet is not a friendly place, as the following examples shall prove. It came with new types of crime previously not possible, and the global nature of the Internet has brought with it the possibility to very quickly affect a huge and growing percentage of humanity. Examples of these types of crime are computer viruses, Trojans loaded with key-logging and spy software which subsequently enable “old” types of crime. Another factor on the rise according to the October 2013 UK Home Office Cyber-crime Research Report  is what is known in the Internet security community as “Black Hat” hacking, which refers to hacking with malicious intent, as opposed to “White Hat” hacking done by security professionals to identify security holes in services with the intent to make the operators and administrators aware of the weaknesses of their systems, so they are then able to fix those.
Accompanying them are old forms of crime. Examples of these include non-delivery fraud, advanced fee fraud (commonly known amongst the community as “419 Scams”, referring to article 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code, dealing with fraud), phishing (directing users to a fake website in order to attain their login credentials or personal data), as well as cyber-grooming of kids.
When privacy settings are not set consciously, users are running the risk of unintentionally sharing their location and telling the world that they are not at home – a very welcome piece of information for robbers and thieves, which in turn inspired the creators of www.pleaserobme.com to create a simplified search interface supposedly “enabling robbers to find empty homes” – but actually raising awareness about the issue. With the rapid decline in price and huge increase in numbers of GPS microchips built into a multitude of devices, comprehensive data gathering is reality today, leading to the situation that car manufacturers (and quite possibly Google or Apple too, depending on which smartphone you choose to use) know exactly when and how you break the law .
Outside the domain of unlawful behaviour, the immediacy of social media opens doors for the more unpleasant patterns of human behaviour too – instances of cyberbullying are increasingly appearing across popular media, leading to personal insults for quotes that might have been taken out of context or were taken from childhood. In the case of the 17-year-old Kent youth police and crime commissioner Paris Brown the discovery of racist and homophobic tweets from when she was 14  and the public outcry over these subsequently led to her resignation. Events like these are called Shit-storms in Germany, a term coined by “Der Spiegel Online” journalist Sascha Lobo , and can be directed at social Media Presences of both individuals and companies. These digital witch hunts do not need any education to be unleashed and it is a popular but not necessarily warranted for theme amongst journalists and the mass-media to blame cyberbullying for recent cases of youth suicides .
From non-delivery and advanced-fee fraud, virus- and Trojan-ridden email attachments and phishing websites, bandits and hate mobs are always just one unwanted click away – and intentional malice is not the only challenge to be faced in the virtual West.
Unfinished business in strange lands
The technological artefacts that make up the Internet including the software that is running on them, as well as the social constructs around these systems are prone to errors and failure. As almost all programmers would agree upon, writing fault-free code while still being productive is close to impossible, and gets even more difficult and therefore less economically viable. Even the best and most proficient programmers cannot write perfect code. An often-cited example for this ideal, an environment where bug-free code is essential because lives (and incidentally, huge investments) are at stake, is the NASA shuttle program – but even there, each of the last 3 software versions contained a bug .
On top of these more “mechanical” issues sits human nature. System operators and administrators, the lone sheriffs in our metaphor, are frequently treated as those parts of the business that bite away profits. Their strategic priorities, as well as the power structures in the companies, are set towards not interfering, but only enabling other departments. Safety and cybersecurity often take the back seat in those considerations as the number of company secrets not stolen due to effective security management cannot be quantified. Departments are also understaffed and underqualified, and the all-present commitment to “never change a running system” leads to further security issues and unattended vulnerabilities in the multitude of software used.
Leaving scores to settle
This is well known across the industry – and might be the reason why so many of the successful players in the digital economy have adopted the philosophy of “moving fast and breaking things”, as Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook puts it . The un-reflected speed of this movement also happened in the Wild West – settlers looking to acquire and farm new land had to move further and further into the west to find it. In the rise of the Internet however, much more is at stake, as very little programming bugs can and frequently do expose millions of private datasets, beginning with credit card data, but ranging to the exposure of entire genealogies through web services . It is frightening to think of a world where sensible data of such importance (remember the hunt for jewish and part-jewish families in Nazi Germany?) is handled with the “shoot (roll-out) first, think later” mind-set necessary to survive in the current digital economy. The depence of almost all facets of society on digital services in combination with its error-prone nature can be called the biggest challenge of the 21st century.
With pervasive Internet access on the customers side and the possibility of instant updates, software and code quality have received less focus. A vivid example is the market of game consoles. With what used to be stand-alone devices playing un-patchable games delivered on read-only memory cartridges, software testing was one of the most important tasks of game development as software changes after the launch of a product were technically very hard to do and substantially affected the business’s performance. Nowadays games and consoles alike are launched in what feels like an unfinished state and receive a multitude of updates over their lifetime. Both Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One require a 300MB (Sony) or 2GB (Microsoft) Software update to be downloaded and installed after the console is bought, before the consoles themselves can be used to their full extent  – and almost every game bought to play on them will need to receive individual updates as well. This development goes even further – Sony, when they released the PlayStation 4, announced that one of its core features, the live streaming of games from an online platform, would only be made available more than half a year after the console has been launched. While this updateability is mostly used to bring additional features or fix bugs, it can also be used to withdraw facilities. A recent update to the Sony PlayStation 3 removed the possibility to install and run the free and open operating System Linux on it , before Hackers could find a way to exploit a bug in it that allowed illegally copied games to be run. Behaviour like this is not only seen in the gaming market, but extends to other examples as well. Amazon, market leader in the e-book market with its Kindle e-reader, retains the possibility to delete books that were legally bought through its own store from customer devices; Apple Inc. employs the same policy with iOS Applications bought through their App Store.
All of these examples emphasize the amount of adaptation needed by older people who are still used to a world where when you bought something, you simply went to the store, and you owned what you got.
Conclusion – riding on into the sunset
Looking at the web today from a European student’s perspective, it has already become almost pervasive and ubiquitous and has long left its virtual nature behind to reach out into reality. This shift into the future is accompanied by a disruption to almost every aspect of human life. Some of these have been accompanied by a widespread public discussion, one instance of which is what was commonly perceived as the failure of the media industry to develop viable long-term business models for the internetworked age; another is the recent uncovering of the unprecedented intelligence surveillance of private public discourse through Edward Snowden’s leaks. These were the first few revolutions in an ever-connected society, and it is highly doubtful that they will be the last. Today’s society is undergoing a fundamental voyage into the unknown, and the formation of new policies and norms for social interaction suitable for this time is not yet viable, as the generation in power right now has little grasp of what it is like to live in a world where washing machines, fridges and even light bulbs  have Internet access, babies are monitored through Skype and your routine appendix surgery is performed by a robot. The children of this brave new world are just about old enough to vote, and are guaranteed to cause a disruption in the fundamentals of how society works.
This essay has presented a selection of the ways with which it is possible to effectively help those at the fringes of society and enable them to reap the benefits of the Internet. In fact, many of them such as the older visitors to the OTELOs are bravely stepping forward to learn the new ways and are meeting the challenges head-on. The lessons they learn will diffuse into their communities through them, will allow them to stay connected to those they hold dear and will continue to enable them to find the information they desire and will keep them away from the dark tar pits than can lurk on the Internet. With new modes of interaction that do not require as precise motor skills, like the voice control modes of Apple’s Siri or Google Voice Search, they can participate just like everyone else. And with enough experience gathered in the Internet, they will know which of the many smoke signals they encounter can be safely ignored, but also when it is time to draw the guns.
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