Every Saturday, 73-year-old Zhao Guihua takes her thermos, notebook and smartphone with her on the bus to go to a special course.

In a classroom located in a residential community in the east Chinese city of Hefei, Zhao and her 30-odd classmates, all senior citizens and most wearing reading glasses, learn how to shop on their smartphones.

“We offer a course that teaches senior citizens how to use their smartphone to scan health-tracking QR codes, make online purchases, register for hospital visits, and shoot short films for the video-sharing app TikTok,” said course founder Liu Li.

Liu, 40, has been providing services for the elderly for 10 years. After learning that many elderly people are confounded by the use of digital devices in their daily lives, she set up the smartphone course in August last year to help them cross the digital divide.

Official data shows that by the end of 2019, some 150 million Chinese citizens at or above the age of 60 still hadn’t had the opportunity to use the Internet.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has helped accelerate the development of digital technologies and the digital economy, it has also highlighted the barriers many older people face in accessing smartphone-based services.

“During the pandemic, scanning a health-tracking QR code is required when going to the supermarket or taking a bus,” said 63-year-old course participant Liu Shaomin. “As I didn’t have a smartphone, I couldn’t do many daily chores.”

Instructor Huang Zhen said the course started with the basics of smartphones and the learners were all very enthusiastic about it. Some lessons were taught at metro stations, hospitals, parks or shops, to give the learners real-life experiences.

Over several months, the number of course participants grew from about 10 to more than 60, with ages ranging from over 60 to over 90.

“Now I can read the news, buy train tickets and book tickets for tourist attractions on my smartphone,” said Zhao. “Scanning health-tracking QR codes is also a piece of cake for me.”

The first thing Liu Shaomin did after starting the course was to buy a smartphone. Now, after taking over 20 lessons, he has acquired many new skills.

“I can do many things that young people do, such as making payments on WeChat, scanning health-tracking QR codes, and taking notes on my smartphone,” he said proudly.

Central authorities have also moved to help elderly people cross the digital divide. In January this year, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology launched a yearlong campaign across the country to make online applications more elderly friendly.

“In the development of society, senior citizens can’t be left unattended. They may lag behind for a while, but when we help them clear the barriers, they will catch up,” said Liu Li.



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