Breaking the Digital Divide: Using Technology to Improve the Lives of Older Adults

Posted on: July 13, 2017

Shelia CottenAs we age, our ability to learn and retain new information diminishes. So much so, that by the time we reach our 80s and 90s, a skill picked up easily by a toddler – like tapping and swiping on a mobile phone - can seem too daunting to undertake. Frustrated and defeated, many older adults simply give up trying to learn new skills.

That’s where Shelia Cotten, Ph.D. steps in. A professor in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences (ComArtSci), Cotten researches technology use across the life course. Her goal is to improve the lives of older adults by closing the digital divide and helping them learn to use technologies to improve their lives.

Training Older Adults

Elderly man using computer tabletIn a recent study, Cotten and her team spent 5-years working with 19 different assisted and independent living facilities training older adults to use computers and the internet. The training lasted for 8-weeks in each facility, with 2 training sessions per week plus an additional office hours session.

The team started with the basics – from turning on a computer, to conducting an internet search, to sending an email.

“A lot of times, older adults have had no experience with computers in their lives,” said Cotten. “So, we have to start very basic. We started early teaching them to use email because findings from our prior work showed that older adults really enjoy that one-to-one communication/interaction.”

The participants also learned how to search for health information, and to critically evaluate the information they found.

“Because a lot of older adults have more health problems than younger aged groups [the question is] ‘How do you find information on the latest prescription that you’ve been given?’ and ‘Is there a conflict with some other medicine that you’re taking?’ We try to help them to be more critical consumers of information,” said Cotten.

Improving Quality of Life

The team also observed the mental health and quality of life benefits the residents received while working with the research team, including impacts on depression, isolation and loneliness.

“A lot of times as people age into their 80s or 90s, their partners or spouses have died, their children may be living far away, their health tends to decline… the combination of those factors

leads them to be more isolated, have higher rates of loneliness, have higher depression levels as they move into older adulthood,” Cotten told us.

According to Cotten, more opportunities for interaction and exchange of social support often lead to more positive outcomes for older adults. Because of that, Cotten focused her study on training older adults in a face-to-face environment, teaching them ways to use technology to connect with their present as well as their past.

“We found the interaction is very beneficial for older adults in general,” said Cotten. “But, over and above [we found] that the training and technology usage had positive effects. Teaching older adults how to use computers and the internet had positive impacts on their quality of life.”

From finding their childhood homes using Google Street View, to watching their favorite classic television shows or listening to music from earlier generations on Hulu and YouTube, the participants were able to see that many of their memories still live on.

Findings of the Study

At the end of the 5-year study, Cotten and her team found that their work was a success.

“We saw very positive effects in terms of teaching older adults in these communities to cross the digital divide and use computers and the internet successfully,” Cotten recalled. “They had reduced loneliness, better social integration, and lower depression. And many of the positive results tended to persist over time.”

The group even wrote a book on designing technology training programs for older adults in continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). The book is intended to help additional facilities work with their residents in the future, continuing to improve their quality of life.

Cotten said the team wrote the book “To provide the latest research- and design-based recommendations for how to design and implement technology training programs for older adults in CCRCs. Our approach concentrates on providing useful best practices for CCRC owners, CEOs and activity directors, as well as practitioners and system designers working with older adults to enhance their quality of life and educators studying older adults. Although the guidelines are couched in the context of CCRCs, they will have broader-based implications for training older adults to use computers, tablets and other technologies.”

More to Come

Cotten has dedicated her career to exploring innovative ways to use technology to improve people’s lives and just finished her fourth year at MSU. This summer, she is conducting a large-scale survey of older adults across the U.S. about different aspects of technology, including digital assistance and even autonomous vehicles.

“You know Alexa? And Siri? We want to get their perspectives on these technologies. There isn’t a lot known about these new technologies coming out and older adults’ perceptions of them and how they might use them to improve their quality of life,” said Cotten. “Autonomous vehicles have such a huge potential for older adults who have mobility problems and can’t drive anymore… Using autonomous vehicles has the potential to significantly impact their independence and have positive impacts on their quality of life.”

In addition to research, Cotten also teaches classes in ComArtSci, is the Director for the Sparrow/MSU Center for Innovation and Research, the Director of Trifecta and was recently promoted to MSU Foundation Professor.

“I love being in the Department of Media and Information and being at MSU; my whole department is focused on how can we use media and technology to improve people’s lives and the larger world. It’s a great opportunity to be in a very interdisciplinary department and have great collaborators who are all interested in different aspects of technology, media, or information. I love it here,” said Cotten.

View more of Cotten's work >> 

By Nikki W. O’Meara

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ComArtSci Professor Promoted to MSU Foundation Professor

Posted on: June 28, 2017

ComArtSci professor Shelia Cotten has been promoted to MSU Foundation Professor for her accomplishments in M&I research. The university awards this title to individuals who combine exemplary scholarly accomplishment with clear professional relevance to areas of scholarly need, disciplinary development, research or creative emphasis. Cotten will retain the title of Foundation Professor for the duration of her time at MSU. Shelia 1

“I am very honored to be awarded a MSU Foundation Professorship,” said Cotten. “This award recognizes the contributions of my research on technology use and impacts across the life course, as well as my efforts to enhance interdisciplinary research as Director of Trifecta and Director of the Sparrow/MSU Center for Innovation and Research. I hope that my research and efforts help to improve the human condition, particularly for individuals and groups who are most disadvantaged in society.”

Cotten studies technology use across the life course and the social, educational and health impacts of that use. She conducts large-scale community based intervention studies designed to use technology to enhance various aspects of quality of life.

“Through interdisciplinary research and innovative use of communication technology, Shelia has forged an exciting research program that addresses transgenerational challenges in health communication,” said ComArtSci Dean Prabu David. “Under Shelia’s leadership, both Trifecta and the Center for Innovation and Research have made significant strides in advancing health communication research at MSU.”

Cotten is a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America. She was previously the Chair of the Communication and Information Technologies Section of the American Sociological Association (CITASA) and the 2013 recipient of the CITASA Public Sociology Award. In 2016 she received the William F. Ogburn Senior Career Achievement Award from the Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology (CITAMS) section of the American Sociological Association. Cotten enjoys teaching courses on the social impacts of technology, survey research and research methods. She joins the ranks of fellow ComArtSci professor Dimitar Deliyski. The two are currently the only ComArtSci professors to be given this prestigious title.

By Katie Kochanny

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ComArtSci professor aims to improve family wellness with NSF Grant

Posted on: October 28, 2016

How can a virtual pet or plant help a family to establish healthy routines? Wei Peng, associate professor in the Department of Media and Information at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, is developing a system called FRESH (Family Routine, Education, and Sensing Health) that will use familiar objects and environments to help families track wellness and improve health.

The goal of FRESH is to use mobile technology, like tablets and cell phones, to monitor a family’s behavior - including their diet, whether they eat together, their physical activity and sleeping habits. The built-in audio, motion, and light sensors necessary to acquire this information from families, as well as a unique algorithm for an app, are being developed in collaboration with MSU’s College of Engineering.  screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-4-16-06-pm

“The reason that we wanted to focus on these family routines is because these activities are very important for obesity prevention,” Peng said.

FRESH works by accessing and collecting data through sensors placed on family member devices with their permission.

The app then uses the information collected through the system, to show the findings through scenes such as a blossoming flower. As a family’s routine improves, the flower will grow and thrive, offering participants an image of their progress. The program also provides families with a support system since the app enables them to communicate with and learn from other families.

Peng said that preliminary testing in Greater Lansing shows that people are willing and excited to participate.

“Most of the families are very accepting because they see the benefits of helping the whole family to be more healthy,” she explained. “This outweighed the risk or the privacy concern.”

The collaborative project between Michigan State University and University of California, San Diego received a $1 million grant in September from the National Science Foundation and an additional $880,000 from MSU. Peng said the funding will solidify and support their 4-year plan.

By Savannah Swix


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Media & Info Professor Shelia Cotten awarded for Gerontology research, career achievement

Posted on: June 2, 2016

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Shelia Cotten, a professor in the Department of Media and Information, has received a lot of good news lately surrounding her research in Gerontology. Cotten was awarded Fellow status in The Gerontological Society of America (GSA) in addition to earning the American Sociological Association’s Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology section (CITAMS) William F. Ogburn Career Achievement Award for her work in discovering how to help the elderly cross the digital divide and utilize technology to enhance their lives.

GSA, with over 500 Fellows, is the largest organization focused on studying older adults with a focus on trying to proactively improve their health and well-being.

“Most of the work I do is thinking about: How can we use technology to enhance people’s lives? Are there existing technologies that could be beneficial, or technologies that need to be modified or created that could enhance older adults lives?” Cotten said.  

Cotten and her research team have recently conducted focus groups with older adults around the state of Michigan. She looks at how older adults benefit from technology and what is most useful to them and their needs. Tablets are increasingly being used by this demographic, but some of these individuals still don’t see the device as the right fit for them.

“A lot of times older adults don’t want to use (tablets or other technologies) because they don’t see the relevance of them for their lives. If you can help them see the relevance then they’ll be more likely to learn to use the technology,” said Cotten. “Showing them how they can communicate and find information can be really powerful for them.”

The American Sociological Association's CITAMS William F. Ogburn Career Achievement Award is given to scholars with outstanding research that has contributed “to the advancement of knowledge in the area of sociology of communication, media, and/or information technology.”

Cotten, who has studied technology for nearly 20 years, said that the Career Achievement Award recognizes the larger body of her work with technology-use over the life course and, specifically, how we approach the idea of the digital divide.

“They’re both wonderful organizations and I feel very fortunate to be a part of both of those organizations,” said Cotten. “I hope I’m not done yet and have more to contribute to enhance people’s lives through the use of technology."

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Van Osch Presents Research at World Usability Day Event

Posted on: November 24, 2015

Van Osch main

In 2011, Wietske Van Osch, Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Information started looking at how companies were using social media. A year later, she began a partnership with Steelcase, a furniture company based out of Grand Rapids.

"Many companies view Steelcase as innovative. People are interested to hear more about their strategy and how they have used social media technologies to boost their innovation capacity,” Van Osch said.

Van OschDuring a World Usability Day event on Nov. 12 at Michigan State, Van Osch presented her research on innovation in enterprise social media. She spoke about the value of enterprise social media and its role in creating a shared work culture and breaking down hierarchical barriers.

"Currently four out of five companies are using some form of enterprise social media," Van Osch said. Although there is a range in the complexity of platforms, once many companies begin using this type of technology, it leads to exploration of more options as they recognize the value.

Steelcase uses Jive Software, which creates a customizable platform specifically for Steelcase. Employees are able to form groups and share ideas and projects they are developing. Other companies like HP and T-Mobile also use Jive software.

In her presentation, Van Osch shared the findings of data compiled over four years of research on Steelcase, including 656 project teams and more than 6,500 discussion threads, 2,000 blogs and 1,500 ideas.

“The goal of this research is to create an innovation dashboard that uses near real-time data from social media and gives continuous feedback to project managers on the success of the team's innovation processes,” she said. “Right now, innovation is like a car without a fuel meter, you don’t know when to pull over and fill up.”

World Usability DayWorld Usability Day was founded to explore ways to ensure that the services and products important to life are easy to access and simple to use. It is the largest gathering of industry professionals, academics, government leaders and students facilitating the progression of usability, user experience and user-centered design. Each year, the World Usability Day community holds more than 150 events in more than 40 countries. Michigan State University’s event draws speakers and attendees from all parts of North America representing industry, government and academia.

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Getting the Word Out About Health Literacy

Posted on: October 7, 2015

RV Rikard on health literacy

R.V. Rikard is all about starting a conversation about what can happen when people don't understand their doctors. As a sociologist, the Postdoctoral Research Associate in MSU's Department of Media and Information makes it a practice to talk among his peers, among his research colleagues, and most importantly, he says, to influencers and media that can help get the word out to general audiences.

"My thinking is always that the place you can make the greatest difference as a researcher and communicator is with people in the general public," Rikard said. "It's validating to make our research real and accessible."

For nearly a decade, Rikard has been studying health literacy – or what he describes as the ability of people to understand and act upon a doctor's instructions, diagnosis or prescribed treatments – particularly during times of extreme stress or trauma. And as health care issues rise in prominence, Rikard has become increasingly tapped as a media resource, as well as for scholarly publications in his field.

In September, Rikard served as a source for an article, "Here's What Happens When People Don't Understand Their Doctor," in GOOD-A Magazine for the Global Citizen. Earlier in the month, he was featured in the American Psychological Association journal Traumatology with a research article that examined health literacy within trauma-related health care.

"Health literacy is not just about accessing and understanding information," Rikard said. "It's more about the ability to act upon information and the effect that can have on the health of a person and our communities as a whole."

Rikard also is an honorary fellow at Australia's Deakin University School of Health and Social Development. His research interests include health literacy and health disparities, the social impact of technology and health and community health, and the connection between online health messages using social media and social network sites and offline health behaviors.

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Studying Facebook’s Algorithmic Curation

Posted on: June 24, 2015


Are Facebook users aware they don’t see everything in their newsfeed that their friends post, and if they are aware, what do they think about that?

These questions are at the heart of a research study by Emilee Rader, AT&T Scholar and Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Information.

“A lot of websites use recommender systems or personalization. When you log on to Amazon it suggests books for you to buy. That’s the same kind of technology that Facebook uses in its newsfeed, except Facebook doesn’t give you a choice. They don’t say here’s the list of possible newsfeed posts that you could be reading,” Rader said.

Instead, Facebook selects what will show in a newsfeed based on a complicated formula where each possible post that could be shown is ranked with the top ones appearing in the newsfeed.

“What Facebook is trying to do is guess which posts you are more likely to want to see,” Rader said. “One of the things we were wondering is whether people notice this is happening or are they totally unaware? We wanted to understand how users are reacting to this. What they think about it? Do they even notice it?”

What Rader found is that some people were not aware this was happening.

“There were a few people who were pretty sure this was happening, but most people were in the maybe to no range at the time we did the study (April 2014),” Rader said. “However, I think there is more public awareness now that there is a filtering algorithm.”

Rader, whose research is supported by a $502,093 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, wrote a paper on this study, titled “Understanding User Beliefs About Algorithmic Curation in the Facebook News Feed,” co-authored by Ph.D. student Rebecca Gray.

Rader and Gray presented the paper at the CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) conference April 18-23 in Seoul, Korea, the most prestigious conference focused on Human-Computer Interaction, which attracts the world’s leading researchers and practitioners in this field to share groundbreaking research and innovations related to how humans interact with digital technologies.

“What the paper was about was a study where we did a big survey that had an open-ended question on it where we asked people if they think they see everything that their friends posts and why they think so,” Rader said. “It turned out that there were some people who were like ‘why wouldn’t I be seeing everything?’ But most people had actually noticed that there was something going on.”

Some people in the survey even had tried to influence what appears in their newsfeed by their own actions in interacting with Facebook.

“People were noticing that the actions they did were having a cause and effect relationship to what they were seeing and were trying to do things to achieve certain goals in their newsfeed,” Rader said. “For example, there were some people who had created a routine of going and visiting particular people’s profile pages just to make sure they would start showing up in their newsfeed. It’s sort of like search engine optimization, the things that people do to get their stuff ranked higher.”

One goal of the research is to better understand the interaction between people and algorithms in an effort to design better systems.

“In a system like Facebook, essentially what you see in your news feed is the result of a combination of your own behavior and then what the algorithm is doing,” Rader said. “There are more and more systems that are coming up that are like this. And so I feel like it’s important to be able to understand and characterize what these interactions look like.”

Facebook is not the only system that uses algorithms to decide what you see.

“Everywhere you interact with a recommender system, there is an algorithm that is choosing what to show you and what not to show you,” Rader said.

The argument for the use of algorithms is if everything was allowed to go through, the experience would not be user friendly and no one would ever use these systems.

“I believe that to be true, but I also think that it’s not perfect either, which is why it’s worth studying,” Rader said.

Rader has written a second paper about this research, which is currently under review. That paper is about people’s reactions when they found out that there were things they were not seeing in their Facebook newsfeed.

Rader helps lead the Behavior, Information and Technology Lab (BITLab) within the College of Communication Arts and Sciences where she conducts her research.

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MSU-Sparrow Center Led by ComArtSci Faculty

Posted on: June 18, 2015

Sheila Cotten with Prabu David

Shelia Cotten, Professor of Media and Information and Director of Trifecta, recently was appointed Director of the Sparrow/MSU Center for Innovation and Research (CFIR). At the same time, Prabu David, Dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, was named Chair of the Governing Board for the CFIR.

The appointments were made by the CFIR Governing Board during its vision and planning meeting April 13.

“I am excited about helping to lead the Center for Innovation and Research to the next level in terms of synergies between MSU and Sparrow,” Cotten said. “A variety of innovative collaborative projects are currently in process and others in development. I look forward to seeing how these collaborative projects are going to transform health care and health outcomes. I encourage clinicians from Sparrow and MSU and researchers from MSU to talk with me about their ideas so that we can work together to transform health care and outcomes.”

Cotten had been serving as Interim Chair of the CFIR since August 2014. She replaced Barbara Given, University Distinguished Professor of Nursing, who was the first Interim Director of the CFIR.

"Having Shelia in a leadership role both in CFIR and Trifecta, a technology-based health care initiative at MSU, offers a unique opportunity to capitalize on built-in synergies," David said.

David takes over for former College of Nursing Dean Mary Mundt, who retired in May and had served as the first Chair of the CFIR Governing Board.

"I am looking forward to working with our friends at Sparrow,” David said. “I see enormous potential for collaboration between Sparrow and innovations in science and technology at MSU, which can be harnessed for better patient experience and the health of our region."

Established in 2012, the Sparrow/MSU Center for Innovation and Research was created through a formal partnership agreement between Sparrow Health System and Michigan State University. Together, MSU's intellectual capital and Sparrow's community-based clinicians work collaboratively to develop innovative approaches to high-quality, safe healthcare.

The center brings together potential innovators from MSU and Sparrow and supports the formation of partnerships within and beyond the boundaries of these separate systems. It aims to transform the delivery of health care through the implementation and evaluation of research that improves patient outcomes and lowers costs.

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Quello Center Director Elected ICA Fellow

Posted on: June 3, 2015

William Dutton with ICA award

William Dutton, Quello Professor of Media and Information Policy in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences and Director of the Quello Center, recently was inducted into the prestigious group of International Communication Association (ICA) Fellows in recognition of his distinguished scholarly contributions to the field of communication.

“William Dutton is the outstandingly successful founding Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, as well as an Oxford Don and currently channeling scholarly input into Washington in the area of telecommunications policy,” the ICA said in a statement. “He has been exceptionally productive and influential in a variety of areas concerning communication and information technologies and communication policy for nearly four decades.

“His contributions range from research on implications of computing and the Internet for society, his international collaborations, and his highly influential development of and commitment to institution-building, through journals (especially helping to found and edit Information, Communication and Society), the Oxford Internet Institute, and now the Quello Center.”

Dutton was the first Professor of Internet Studies at the University of Oxford, a position he held from 2002 to 2014, where he was Founding Director of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and a Professorial Fellow of Balliol College. He also is a Professor Emeritus at the Annenberg School at USC, where he was elected President of the University’s Faculty Senate.

“This is a well-deserved recognition for pioneering research on the Internet and a wealth of contributions to the field,” said Prabu David, Dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. “This is a great honor. Less than 2 percent of current ICA members are fellows.”

Dutton has received numerous grants for his research and is widely published. His research interests include a wide range of issues concerning the Internet and society, policy and regulation, such as initiatives around digital divides, the role of networked, distributed collaboration and digital social research, and politics and the Internet, including his influential conception of the Internet’s Fifth Estate.

“His long and distinguished career in the areas of ICTs (information and communication technology) and policy is also distinguished by his early promotion of the socio-technical systems approach, public policy issues involving ICTs, the critical understanding of ‘wired cities,’ and the ‘ecology of games’ theory. Notably, he early on highlighted a more international perspective on ICT research and policy,” the ICA said in its statement.

Dutton currently is the principal investigator of an MSU research team working on a Net Neutrality Impact Study. The goal of this research is to provide a non-partisan, unbiased assessment of the short-, medium- and long-term implications of the FCC’s new order approving rules that support net neutrality. He also is leading a Quello Center team focused on the use of the Internet for the social and economic revitalization of Detroit, and is a co-principal on an Oxford cybersecurity project.

Dutton was recognized as an ICA Fellow at the International Communication Association annual conference May 21-25 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He expressed his appreciation of this recognition, saying: “I thank ICA for this honor as well as the many colleagues in our burgeoning global field of communication arts and sciences who have supported my work on the policies and practices shaping the Internet and its societal implications. I believe James H. Quello would be proud of his center.”

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Research Shows Tablets Can Help Elderly Cross the ‘Digital Divide’

Posted on: May 28, 2015


One way to help the elderly cross what’s known as the “digital divide” is the use of tablets, those smaller, lighter, easy-to-use computers that seem to be taking the place of laptops.

New College of Communication Arts and Sciences research has found that the use of tablets does make it easier, breaking down some of the barriers that keep seniors from getting connected.

In addition to being smaller, lighter and more portable, tablets allow people to maneuver online without having to move and click a mouse.

“The dexterity required to control a mouse is really hard for some older adults,” said Shelia Cotten, Professor in the Department of Media and Information who led the research. “A certain level of muscle control is needed. And some older adults have shaking issues, in addition to muscle-control issues in their hands and arms.”

Cotten also said that in most cases, tablets are just easier to use, especially for people who don’t have a lot of computer experience.

“For the most part, they are pretty easy to operate,” she said. “You don’t have to click on 12 different things to do what you want to do. It helps to ease their tech anxiety.”

The researchers also found that when an elderly person’s family recommended a certain type of tablet and helped them learn how to use it, that contributed to their computer-use confidence as well. They learned how to use tablets by watching others use them and also by playing around on the tablets themselves.

It’s a fact that getting online can help the elderly feel more connected to family and friends, as well as providing them with useful information.

“For example, it allows them to be more proactive in their health care,” Cotten said. “They have access to health information, electronic medical records and so on.”

Last year, Cotten and colleagues published research that found Internet use among the elderly can help ward off depression.

“It’s all about older persons being able to communicate, to stay in contact with their social networks and just not feel lonely,” she said.

Cotten said tablets are increasingly used by older adults, noting the recent announcement of collaboration between Apple, IBM and Japan Post to disseminate 5 million tailored iPads to older adults in Japan.

This recent research, published in the journal Educational Gerontology, was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

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