Beyond the Digital Divide: Digital Skills and Training Needs of
Persons 50+
Veronika Hämmerle, Julia Reiner
, Esther Ruf
, Stephanie Lehmann
and Sabina Misoch
Institute for Ageing Research, OST Eastern Switzerland University of Applied Sciences,
Rosenbergstrasse 59, St.Gallen, Switzerland
Keywords: Digital Divide, Digital Skills, Older Adults, Training Needs.
Abstract: Demographic change and digitalisation are two megatrends which change society and individual life
fundamentally. Digital skills and their continuous development are increasingly central prerequisites for
participation in private and public life, and it must be ensured that all citizens can develop the skills necessary
to participate and to access services. However, these skills are not equally developed in all population groups,
an unequal distribution of ICT use, digital skills, and its outcomes, the so-called “digital divide”. However,
using a binary classification of Internet use or skills overlooks the broad differences in people’s level of skills.
Due to the static and dichotomous theoretical conception, there is a high risk of overlooking the group of
people who, in a continuum of digital skills, are not at either end but somewhere in the middle. Especially
with persons in the second half of life, due to their biography as they did not grow up with digitalisation but
acquired basic skills during their professional lives, a high percentage of people with intermediate digital
skills can be assumed. This group is at risk of being overlooked in the context of digital skills courses, which
often focus on building basic skills. Strategies and programs should be developed to support the further
development of digital skills of this group during and especially beyond working life. Therefore, a mixed-
method study, entitled “Digital Skills and Training Needs of 50+. A Study Beyond the Digital Divide”, is
conducted by the Institute for Ageing Research (IAF), OST Eastern Switzerland University of Applied
Sciences, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) within the program NRP 77 “Digital
Transformation”. The project will generate broad knowledge of actual and long-term digital competences of
Swiss people 50 plus, their training experiences, as well as develop evidence-based recommendations for
stakeholders wishing to design new training courses on digital competences for people 50 plus with different
educational backgrounds and experiences. This project provides actual and long-term broad knowledge and
practical application possibilities to ensure the participation of future generations in digitalisation in
Switzerland. This paper presents in detail the project, its individual parts and the methodological approach..
Demographic change worldwide and in Switzerland
is leading to a significant increase in the number of
older adults in the population (Federal Statistical
Office, 2020; Vaupel, 2000). In parallel all areas of
society are being transformed by digitalisation
(Tsekeris, 2018). These two megatrends will change
society and individual life fundamentally. Despite
these changes and developments, it must be ensured
that all citizens, including older adults, can develop
the skills necessary to participate in public and social
life and to access health-services as well as other
services. In an increasingly digitalised society digital
competences and skills and their continuous
development are essential (European Commission,
2018; Ferrari, Punie, and Brečko, 2013).
The European Commission (2018) defines Digital
Competence as “the confident, critical and creative
use of ICT to achieve goals related to work,
employability, learning, leisure, inclusion and/or
Hämmerle, V., Reiner, J., Ruf, E., Lehmann, S. and Misoch, S.
Beyond the Digital Divide: Digital Skills and Training Needs of Persons 50+.
DOI: 10.5220/0011068200003188
In Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Ageing Well and e-Health (ICT4AWE 2022), pages 276-282
ISBN: 978-989-758-566-1; ISSN: 2184-4984
2022 by SCITEPRESS Science and Technology Publications, Lda. All rights reserved
participation in society. Digital Competence is a
transversal key competence which, as such, enables
acquiring other key competences (e.g. language,
maths, learning to learn, creativity). It is amongst the
so-called 21st Century skills which should be
acquired by all citizens, to ensure their active socio-
economic participation in society and the economy.”
A basic framework for digital competences for all
citizens is provided from the European DigCOMP
project, listing competences and describing them in
terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The main
areas of digital competence identified by the
DigCOMP (2020) framework are information,
communication, content-creation, safety and
problem-solving (Ferrari et al., 2013, p. 4).
1.1 Digital Divide
However, the use of ICT and digital skills are not
equally developed in all population groups. To capture
this inequity, the term “digital divide” emerged in the
mid-1990s. Up to now, it still dominates the discourse on
the societal distribution of digital competences
(Castells, 2002; Eastin, Cicchirillo, and Mabry, 2015;
Friemel, 2016). The Organisation for Economic Co-
operation and Development (OECD, 2001) defines
the digital divide as differences between individuals,
households, companies, or regions related to the
access to and usage of ICT. These inequalities in
access to the Internet and usage of ICT are also called
the “first-level digital divide” (Van Dijk, 2005). The
concept has received much attention, partly because
the digital divide is seen as the practical embodiment
of the wider theme of social inclusion (Selwyn,
2004). Over time, broadband Internet access and
digital devices became more prevalent in developed
countries, and the diffusion of the Internet among
households reached high levels. With time, the digital
divide discourse shifted from Internet access to issues
of Internet skills, which was then referred to as
“second-level digital divide” (Hargittai, 2002; Tsai,
Shillair, and Cotten, 2017; Van Dijk, 2005). Further,
it was found that although Internet access exists and
digital skills are available, outcomes of Internet use
are not necessarily beneficial, a discussion resulting in
the term “third-level digital divide” (Stern, Adams,
and Elsasser, 2009; Van Deursen, Helsper, and
Eynon, 2016; Wei, Teo, Chan, and Tan, 2011).
In order to counteract these divides and the
resulting disadvantages, various efforts have been
made to get people, including older adults, online and
to provide basic digital skills. The underlying
assumption is that once someone is online, they will
remain ‘digitally engaged’ (Olphert and Damodoran,
2013, p. 564). However, in their review, Olphert and
Damodoran (2013) found statistics showing that some
users give up using the Internet and that there is
emerging evidence that older adults in particular tend
to do so (in the sense of a so-called “fourth digital
divide”, Olphert and Damodoran, 2013).
Over time, the complexity of the so-called digital
divide became obvious and critical perspectives on the
concept emerged, e. g. concerning its range resp.
dichotomy (Wang, Myers, and Sundaram, 2013). This
primarily emerged due to the wide gap within the
generations, especially at the beginning of the
ongoing digitalisation. Referred to the dichotomy
between non-user and user, a distinction is (still often)
made between so-called digital natives, defined as
generation Y (born between 1980-1999) and digital
immigrants, who were born earlier and thus, learned
to use computers in adulthood (Prensky, 2001).
Whereas the former ones attributed high
competences, the latter ones regarded to have low
skills resp. knowledge. However, using a binary
classification of Internet use or skills overlooks the
broad differences in people’s level of skills, therefore,
one should talk about a continuum of digital skills.
Additionally to the problem of actual over-
simplification through a dichotomous division into
two groups, the rapidity of technical change supports
the change of perspective to a continuum of digital
skills. For example, it is likely that the use of the
Internet will increase in the future, but the rapid
technological development will also mean that digital
natives will have something new to learn. This does
not just comprises certain practical skills in using the
Internet, but also knowledge resp. awareness of
certain consequences, e. g. questions of sustainability
or digital footprints (Vervier, Zeissig, Lidynia, and
Ziefle, 2017). Moreover, with the rapid (further)
development of modern technologies and the spread
of social media, the concrete manifestations of the
divides in society are constantly changing (Weibert,
Aal, Unbehaun, and Wulff, 2017). In sum, it gets
obvious, that the “digital divide” is not a fixed picture,
but a quite dynamic process with changing inequalities
over time.
1.2 Need for Older Adults Maintaining
Digital Skills
Research on digital inequality so far tended to assign
people over a certain age (resp. from a certain
generation) to a category of "older adults", assuming
that this is a homogeneous group. However, Hargittai
and Dobranski (2017) showed with data from a
national survey in the U.S. that older adults are not
Beyond the Digital Divide: Digital Skills and Training Needs of Persons 50+
one homogeneous group with identical online
behaviours. For Switzerland, for example,
Schumacher and Misoch (2017) found
inhomogeneous groups concerning the use of digital
services. It should therefore be noted that concerning
their Internet experience, the group of people 50 plus
cannot be regarded as homogeneous (Stallmann,
Against the background of these findings and the
theoretical conceptions of Internet use as static (ICT
use) and dichotomous (digital divide), there is a high
risk of overlooking the group of people who, in a
continuum of digital skills, are not at one end but
somewhere in the middle. Especially the needs of
persons in their second half of life, who have not
grown up in the course of digitalisation but who have
moderate digital skills, have received little attention
so far. Considering cohort effects, it can be assumed
that the proportion of the group with moderate digital
skills is especially high among people 50 plus, as
most of these people have gained their digital skills
more at work than in school or at home (Van Dijk and
Hacker, 2003). A part of this group, often referred to
as “Baby boomer generation”, could benefit from an
enormous economic growth and, considering that
they benefited significantly from a successful
expansion of education, was able to achieve good
employment opportunities (Höpflinger, 2019; Oertel,
2014). As general trends, technisation and
digititalisation were dominant in their later
professional phases. Therefore, it can be expected that
this large group has at least basic, if not in-depth
experience with technology and digitalisation
through their professional activity.
It is therefore very important to focus on this
group of people, aged 50 plus with moderate digital
skills. It remains questionable how this group is
supposed to develop its digital competences beyond
professional life. Although getting older adults online
has been a high priority in many countries, little
attention has been paid to whether and how their
usage can be sustained over time.
The assumption that once someone is online, he
or she will remain digitally engaged might not be true.
According to Olphert and Damodaran (2013), older
adults are more vulnerable to give up digital
engagement. The authors see this phenomenon as a
potential but largely unrecognised “fourth digital
divide” which has serious implications for social
inclusion. Especially when it comes to the post-
professional phase in the course of retirement, not just
training opportunities on the job, but also informal
learning opportunities decline since social networks
decrease. As a consequence, this group is at high risk
of being left behind digitally and strategies and
programmes should be developed to support the
further development of their digital skills, even
though it is recognised that courses do not completely
prevent people from giving up the Internet and
computers, because it may also be the case due to
changing needs and priorities. Based on findings of
SHARE data that showed that also previous online
older adults stop using the Internet, König and Seifert
(2020) recommend that possible interventions for
addressing those older adults in particular should be
promoted, such as skills training.
In order to meet the aforementioned social needs,
the project “Digital Skills and Training Needs of 50+.
A Study Beyond the Digital Divide”, funded by the
Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) within
the program NRP 77 “Digital Transformation” is
conducted with a strong focus on practical application
and implementation. The project is carried out from
2020 to 2024 by the Institute for Ageing Research
(IAF), OST Eastern Switzerland University of
Applied Sciences. The project, its individual parts and
the methodological approach are presented in detail
2.1 Project Goals
The core goal of the project is to analyze the digital skills
and training needs of people 50 plus and the current
course offers in this context. In addition,
recommendations for action are developed. The
research project is designed as a mixed-method study,
consisting of quantitative and qualitative as well as
primary and secondary research with a clear practical
implementation and applicability. Furthermore, the
project is not only used to generate cross-sectional
data, but also to create an infrastructure that allows to
generate sustainable long-term data during and
beyond the project.
2.2 Work Steps
To meet the project goals, the following steps are
A) Providing a comprehensive analysis of current
training offers on digital skills for 50 plus throughout
Switzerland using the method of a program analysis.
B1) Compilation of a comprehensive questionnaire
for a representative, Switzerland-wide survey (in
German, French, Italian) to assess the actual digital
ICT4AWE 2022 - 8th International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Ageing Well and e-Health
competences of Swiss people 50 plus, course
experiences, and influencing variables such as
sociodemographics, technology interest, self-
efficacy, etc.
B2) Developing a self-assessment (in German,
French, Italian) for people 50 plus, online available
and to be used beyond the project period to generate
long-term data on digital competences and
knowledge about cohort effects in Switzerland.
B3) Conducting a representative survey (including
B1, B2) of people 50 plus in Switzerland (n = 400).
C) In-depth analysis of training experiences with
courses for the acquisition and maintaining of digital
competences as well as future digital training needs
by interviewing people 50 plus (n = 20).
D) Formulation of specific, evidence-based
recommendations for stakeholders wishing to design
new training courses on digital competences for
people 50 plus and with different educational
backgrounds and experiences. The recommendations
will focus on the content, the didactical, and the
structural level. The recommendations will be
enriched with best practice examples in a factsheet.
The individual steps are shown in figure 1.
Figure 1: Procedure of the project.
2.3 Methods
A) Program Analysis: Current Training Offers
In part A of the study, an overview of the current
course offerings for older adults in Switzerland is
gained. With regard to contents, topics, methods used,
target groups, needed digital skills and gaps in
services the method of program analysis, an adult
educational method, focuses on the programmes as
the object of investigation. A programme expresses
the learning concept of an educational institution, its
understanding of education and qualification (see
Gieseke 2008; Gieseke and Opelt, 2003). At the same
time, it materializes the provider's ideas about the
educational needs of potential participants (Nolda,
2011). Therefore, programmes offered in 2020 and
2021 (online and offline) are identified as the
information source that will deliver the most relevant
data applicable for the project. The search is focused
on providers of non-academic adult education in all
parts of Switzerland and will mainly focus on the
online information portal of the Swiss authorities
(, a service of the Confederation, the
cantons and the municipalities. The analysis follows
three steps (Käpplinger, 2008): a) Coding: The
programs will be systematically analysed according
to a coding system. The coding plan is developed
specifically for this study and will be orientated on
coding plans already tested in research (see Gieseke
and Opelt, 2003; Schrader and Zentner, 2010).
Categorisation is inductive and deductive. To
increase the reliability and quality of the results, an
intercoder-reliability check is carried out (Misoch,
2019). b) Data check: In case of ambiguities,
discrepancies are discussed in the research team, and
disputed cases will be documented. c) Analysis: The
program analysis of this study combines quantitative
and qualitative methods. The quantitative results will
be prepared in quantifiable form via SPSS 26.
Qualitative data will be interpreted under the use of
qualitative aspects using content analysis (Mayring,
2015) via Atlas.ti.
B) Quantitative Research on Digital Skills
B1) Compilation of a comprehensive questionnaire to
survey digital competences of Swiss older adults 50
plus, their experiences with courses concerning
digital skills, and a broad range of influencing
variables. The questionnaire includes questions about
sociogemographic variables (age, gender, nationality,
residence, education level, marital status, household
size, income, past and present occupation),
technology interest, self-efficacy, health status,
digital skills (see B2), experience with digital skills
courses, wishes and needs regarding digital training,
actual available digital support.
B2) Development of a self-assessment questionnaire.
The development process of the self-assessment
questionnaire includes several steps. Item generation
is based on the indicators of digital competence
formulated by the European Commission (2014) as
well as on the digital competence framework by the
European Commission (Ferrari et al., 2013) and
augmented by further literature on digital
competences and related already developed
Beyond the Digital Divide: Digital Skills and Training Needs of Persons 50+
measurement instruments. A first draft of the
assessment will be presented to and developed
together with an advisory board of the project,
consisting of course providers in Switzerland, with
the goal to gain consensus from the experts whether
the items reflect the characteristics required to
measure digital competences. The adapted
assessment is also presented to a group of older adults
of the Sounding Board of the IAF to gain feedback on
aspects like clarity and handling. A pretest with n
60 refines the defined items. As often found in
research, a convenience sample for the pretest will be
used (Connelly, 2008; Mair and Whitten, 2000). The
participants for the pretest are recruited in a snowball
system via the established internal network of the
IAF. By conducting tests evaluating reliability (e. g.,
Cronbachs’s Alpha) it is ensured that the self-
assessment fulfils the quality requirements regarding
consistency and accuracy
B3) A representative telephone survey of people
aged 50 plus (n = 400), across the three Swiss
language-regions (German, French, Italian) is
conducted. Besides general demographic variables,
the survey contains the self-assessment questionnaire
on digital competences (see B2), and various
(standardized and open) questions on training
experiences and training needs (B1). One focus is on
the investigation of possible differences in
competences and needs among people with various
educational levels as well as on differences within age
groups, gender, and income. In addition, analyses are
carried out to examine the interaction between
competence levels and needs. The standardized
telephone survey will be conducted by a social
research institute using computer-assisted telephone
interviewing (CATI) that provides the research team
with the raw data, in the form of an anonymized SPSS
dataset. All further processing and evaluation steps
will be carried out by the research team of IAF.
Besides the analyse of cross-sectional data, this
project will be used to establish a sustainable
infrastructure to gather long-term data. The self-
assessment questionnaire will be available online in
German, French and Italian and will be promoted to
course providers across Switzerland. Potential course
participants will be able to follow a link, which leads
them from the course provider's website to the online
version of the self-assessment questionnaire
(embedded in the website of IAF). The interested
participants can click through the assessment and will
receive a summary of their digital competence level.
Course providers can begin to indicate what level of
competences the offered course addresses and they
can create courses based on the existing competence
levels. The data will be stored on the internal server
and continuously enrich the data set, that can be
analysed cross-sectionally and sequentially.
C) Qualitative Interviews: Training Experiences
and Needs
Qualitative telephone interviews are conducted with
a subgroup (n = 20) from the standardized survey
(B1). The semi-structured interviews (Misoch, 2019)
are planned six months after the quantitative survey
and will be used to learn more about the participants’
experiences with the courses: What expectations,
needs and motivations were linked to the course
participation? Did the course meet the initial
expectations? What positive and negative
experiences did the participants have with the course?
Did the participants feel adequately addressed by the
course? The results and conclusions will contribute to
developing recommendations for future courses.
D) Recommendations and Best Practice Examples
In the final part of the study, the results of the
previous steps will be combined, and
recommendations will be derivated and illustrated
with international best practice examples.
Additionally, the formulation of recommendations
will also consider research-based pedagogical
frameworks, such as “Universal Design for Learning”
(UDL) (e. g. Meyer, Rose, and Gordon, 2014) to
maximize learning for people 50 plus through the
three main pillars affective networks, recognition
networks, and strategic networks. A classification
that allows the evaluation of current training offers
will be developed, and best practice examples will be
recommended. The recommendation guideline will
be made accessible to all relevant stakeholders and
seek to improve and optimize the current training
offers for older adults, enhancing the digital
competences of people 50 plus on the long-term. The
selected best practice examples will be published
together with the recommendations as a factsheet.
Interested course providers can use the information in
the factsheet to learn from each other. The factsheet
aims to strengthen national and international
networking between course providers.
The program analysis (A) provides a comprehensive
survey and analysis of the current courses offered in
Switzerland for people 50 plus and will be the basis
for developing a grid of how courses are categorized
ICT4AWE 2022 - 8th International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Ageing Well and e-Health
to create a fit between the captured digital skills (B2)
and provided courses.
With the compilation of the self-assessment
questionnaire (B2), it is intended to meet three
objectives: First, it will be the basis for and part of the
quantitative survey (B3) and provide information on
the current state of digital competences of persons 50
plus in Switzerland. Second, it can be used by training
providers and older adults to assess the digital
competence before the training (like the level tests
before language courses). Therefore, it is possible to
match training offers and digital competences in the
best possible way. Third, it will be made available to
course providers during and beyond the project. This
will make it possible to collect long-term data and
compare digital competences with each other in a
sequential design.
The project steps A to C aim to find out which
courses regarding digital skills are available, which
digital skills, training needs and expectations persons
50 plus have and whether previous courses could
meet these needs and expectations respectively what
could be improved.
The summary analysis and evaluation of the
project steps A, B, and C lay the foundation for a
classification for best practice recommendations (D).
The classification contains criteria which, according
to the project findings, are important and relevant for
the age group 50 plus in terms of ensuring the
acquisition of digital competences.
With the project, it is expected not only to
contribute to scientific discourse but also to create a
significant contribution to practice. By deriving
recommendations from the research results and
illustrating them with best practice examples, courses
for people with medium digital competences can be
developed or adapted. The self-assessment
questionnaire makes digital competences and
knowledge gaps visible to older adults and helps to
communicate training needs. It can be the starting
point for further course search or open up a
conversation with a course provider in order to find
the best matching offer. The data thus gathered
enables course providers to identify different target
groups and to tailor their offers accordingly. The
involvement of stakeholders in form of an advisory
board (course providers, older adults and other
experts in adult education) from the beginning of the
project ensures that the results are applicable in
practice and implemented into concrete and requested
course offerings even beyond the project. On the
long-term, the project contributes to ensuring the
lifelong acquisition of the required competences to
participate confidently in the digital world and
support the needs of social transformation. Findings
from this study should be applicable across various
age groups and may be applicable in other countries
besides Switzerland as well.
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