Interview: Connecting Memphis elders to digital resources with Kathy Lofton and Courtney McNeal

Innovation Delivery Team

In 2022, Innovate Memphis launched a new pilot program to provide digital resources to the Black elder population in some of Memphis’ underserved communities. The program consists of a five-week digital literacy course curriculum, and participants who meet attendance requirements receive a free laptop at their graduation ceremony. As of June 2023, three cohorts of 20 students have successfully completed the courses, and a final cohort will start next month.

We recently interviewed the two catalysts behind the Senior Community Tech and Connect Digital Literacy Program. Here’s our chat with Courtney McNeal, City Innovation Director and Chief of Staff, and Kathy Lofton, who serves as a Lead for America Fellow, American Connection Corps member and the Senior Digital Literacy Coordinator for the pilot.

Why was the Senior Community Tech and Connect Program created?

Kathy: Well, the pandemic and economic shifts have shown us the dependency we have on digital tools and the need for electronic and remote access to services. Our job is to utilize data to pinpoint needs and opportunities within the community. We found that seniors were in need of access to digital technology skills and the means to socially connect as well as engage in essential services necessary for daily activities of living. Lack of such access especially affects people of color in marginalized areas of the city. Seniors are a big part of that group. So, this pilot was created to solve that challenge.

Courtney: It speaks closely to what Kathy said. We wish to mitigate digital inclusion and equity disparities within the Memphis community through computer education courses geared toward African American seniors seeking digital literacy, exposure, and know-how. It is a matter of supply and demand. Seniors wanted and needed this type of training but did not know where to obtain training or did not have a convenient location to obtain the training.

What were the original goals of the pilot? How do you know if it has been successful?

Courtney: We are hoping to train a total of 80 seniors across the four cohorts within this one-year period and have already completed training for the first three cohorts. In terms of program outcomes, our goals are to: 1) Improve cohort participants’ level of digital literacy knowledge by at least 50% following the end of the five-week course based on pre- and post-assessments; 2) Provide an intrinsically rewarding experience to cohort participants as a result of teaching a new skill and building confidence by virtue of acquiring that new skill; 3) Make a social impact in the community by fostering more productive, independent senior citizens; and 4) Narrow the digital divide by addressing inequities among marginalized groups

Our program assessments to date show an 87-90% satisfaction rate with the instruction, course materials and learning outcomes, and seniors have also demonstrated a lot of improved understanding of computer terms, web navigation and internet safety.  Generally, the seniors benefit by gaining access to digital literacy, learning new skills, regaining independence, having access to helpful resources online, receiving a boost in confidence, and maintaining cognition and motor skills.

Kathy: Some graduates have even expressed the desire to apply their digital learning to part-time employment and volunteer activities.

Innovate Memphis takes a collaborative approach to its work. Are there key partners who contributed to this Senior Community Tech and Connect Program?

Courtney: We are so excited to be funded by the West End Home Foundation. Additionally, the laptop devices were donated by ER2, located in downtown Memphis.  We conducted the digital literacy courses at community centers and libraries located in a variety of neighborhoods through our partnership with the City of Memphis. They include Oasis of Hope, Ruth E. Tate Senior Center and Cornelia Crenshaw Public Library.

What kinds of challenges did you encounter getting the pilot off the ground?

Kathy: That is a great question. As with any new pilot, the challenges of coordinating a new launch are always inherent. There are date pushbacks, technical glitches to resolve (which is why I always showed up early to classes or came in a day ahead to check on things), or changes to curriculum to effectively meet the needs of the participants. Learning what worked and didn’t work with the curriculum early on helped make each cohort even better.

Courtney: Kathy and I learned to read signals from the seniors, like when we needed to slow down or repeat lessons that they had not grasped yet. Flexibility and patience were key traits in working with our participants. Kathy and I were great at each spotting an area of opportunity or improvement for making a lesson more efficient and effective for the next session.

What are you most proud of with the pilot so far?

Kathy: We were proud to showcase the program on WMC’s Bluff City Life with two of our cohort graduates, one of whom is 94 years old! Our oldest participant is 96. We are helping seniors excel and breaking barriers and stereotypes about adult learning.

Courtney: I am so elated seeing all the seniors having an increased level of confidence and pride at the completion of the program. I was blown away with our Cornelia Crenshaw Library cohort on their graduation ceremony day. They gained so much knowledge and were so excited! Many of them reside in public housing, so we were pleased to have Memphis Housing Authority staff to join us for the festivities.Having strong connections help us meet people where they are lead to better access and attendance for these valued and needed programs.

Is there anything you would have done differently based on what you learned?

Courtney: This was our first time ever launching a program like this, and I think we did a good job with its planning and execution. During that process we may have run into a few speed bumps, but those were rewarding as it helped us with problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, and understanding the demographic we serve.

Kathy: As the instructor and facilitator, I now have an understanding of how our elders learn, particularly those who haven’t had as much education and have lower socioeconomic status. I discovered that most participants’ learning style hands-on, so demonstration exercises, interactive games, and a few worksheets worked well this group. I would focus on this route going forward with similar class populations.

What’s next for Innovate’s digital literacy programming?

Courtney: The goal is to sustain a learning environment for each cohort operated by the cohort facility staff/organization. We look forward to presenting this pilot to other community partners to illustrate the success of the pilot in hopes that they will adopt programming.

If you have additional questions about this pilot, contact Courtney McNeal at

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