Teaching High-Tech on the High Seas

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Teaching High-Tech on the High Seas: Digital Workshop a huge hit with Holland America's older clientele

It's my first day at sea aboard the Holland America Veendam on a week-long cruise sailing from Manhattan to Bermuda.

While many of the other 1,300 passengers are lounging by the pool, playing slot machines in the casino, enjoying a spa treatment or jostling for position at the Lido buffet, I have more enlightening pursuits in mind.

I'm attending computer boot camp for the digitally challenged.

"Techspert" Lauren Murphy conducts a class in the Digital Workshop aboard the Veendam It's a series of courses -- several offered onboard each day -- that the Holland America Line calls the Digital Workshop Powered by Windows. The cruise line now offers the program on 13 of its 14 vessels.

Indeed, computer courses at sea are now becoming almost as ubiquitous as the towel animals cruisers find on their cabin beds at night. Several cruise lines, including Celebrity and Princess, two of Holland America's leading competitors in the high-end mass-market segment, also offer computer classes.

On the Veendam, I arrive a few minutes early in a classroom right next to the Rotterdam Dining room equipped with 16 laptops and claim one in the back row. By the time the class starts, it's standing-room-only and some participants need to double-up on computers.

"Techspert" Lauren Murphy, 26, teaches our eager group of mostly beginners, some of whom are close to three times her age, how to download pictures onto the computer. Other hour-long sessions that day cover how to edit photos and then turn them into a movie.

"Click fix on the top menu," Murphy said, explaining how to auto-adjust color and light in a photo using Windows Live Photo Gallery.

"Click what on what now?" a gray-haired gentleman asked from the second row.

At first, I think the courses are a bit too basic for me, and I'm not particularly computer-savvy. But before long we're learning how to "stitch" images together to make a panoramic photo, remove that annoying red-eye that often mars indoor portraits, and other techniques I had no idea how to do. I find myself eschewing movies, bingo and other shipboard activities to repeatedly return to the Digital Workshop.

Cruise lines, especially those like Holland America that attract an older clientele, have found these courses to be hugely popular with their passengers, some of whom come onboard without even rudimentary computer skills but want to learn basic tasks like how to email their vacations photos to their relatives.

The Holland America Veendam anchored off the coast of Bermuda.

"I've had lots of people come in who never used a mouse before and didn't even know how to turn on a computer," said Murphy, who quit her job as an accountant in Texas two years ago and is now teaching classes on her eighth Holland America ship. "They have kids and grandkids that know how to do this stuff, but they don't know how to do it themselves and nobody has time to teach them."

Carol Clippard, a 76-year-old passenger from Tucson, attended a session on the Veendam with her husband Buck called "Put Your Best Face Forward," a primer on digital editing tools.

"I didn't even know I could do photo editing on my computer," she said. "I have 7,000 pictures on my computer and I have to learn how to do something with them."

Holland America offers its Digital Workshop in partnership with another Seattle-based company -- Microsoft. The computer-software company provides the laptops, course materials and trains the instructors.

In return, Holland America agreed to showcase Microsoft products to an important market -- affluent seniors. The cruise line also offers all the classes for free, making it the only entirely complimentary technology program of its kind at sea.

Erik Elvejord, a Holland America spokesman, said the partnership has worked out well for both companies. "It's a plus for Microsoft, which is engaging an audience that might not otherwise engage in computer technology," he said. "These are folks that will probably use more and more computers and applications as time goes on.

"For us, it gives us an activity that we know people are interested in. The average age of our guests is around 55 and these are people who are looking to learn this technology. It keeps them involved and active. It's complimentary, which is fantastic, and it has been a huge hit."

While Microsoft promotes its Windows products to Holland America cruisers, its rival, Apple, isn't sitting by idly ashore. The producer of Macintosh computers has a partnership with Celebrity Cruises in which passengers can take classes at sea using Macs and other Apple products. Some of the Celebrity courses are free; most have a $20 fee.

Murphy, the Holland America "techspert," said that on some sailings, as many as 50 people have crowded into the classroom at one time. "It sometimes gets really packed in here," she said.

View of downtown Hamilton, Bermuda from aboard the Veendam Not surprisingly, the Digital Workshop on the Veendam had much larger turnouts on sea days than when we were docked in Bermuda, when most of the ship's passengers were off exploring the island.

In addition to teaching three or four classes a day, Murphy offers an hour each day of "techspert time," in which passengers can come in and look at their photos and ask questions about anything related to computers. On some cruises, more advanced courses are offered, including how to blog and even set up your own personal Webpage.

Murphy said that on the Veendam's sailing the week before, one of her students was a 90-year-old woman. "She didn't know anything about a computer," she said. "She came to about every class and by the end of the week was able to stitch together her photos. She just loved it."

Not everyone, though, who attends the Digital Workshop is a novice. On my sailing, Mike Meffert, 72, of Bridgewater, Va., came to a session called "A New Window Into Your World," an overview of Windows 7. He was trying to decide whether it was worth upgrading to the new operating system. Meffert, who considers himself more computer literate than most people his age, bought his first computer -- an IBM -- way back in 1982.

"I paid $4,200," he recalled. "I had a friend who was working at IBM at the time. He told me, 'Buy this computer and you'll never need another one.'"

That was 15 computers ago.

Dan Fellner is a freelance travel writer living in Gilbert, Arizona. His website is www.FellnerTravelInfo.com

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