By David Jarmul next avenue contributor
“Guys, this is a big experiment,” laughed Alan Teasley as he kicked off his online adult education course on Stephen Sondheim with a song from the internet West Side Story, with Zoom video conferencing technology. Over the next hour, the former high school drama teacher shared songs and video clips from the legendary Broadway composer and lyricist.
A few hours earlier, another speaker was talking about opera on the same site. Others spoke about the Super Bowl, fake news, politics and prisons.
Hundreds of older viewers clicked through to the 22 free lectures organized by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Duke University in Durham, NC, after the coronavirus pandemic forced it to cancel the final weeks of its in-person spring classes.
(Read all Next Avenue Covid-19 coverage geared towards keeping older generations informed, safe and prepared.)
Why online lessons are so attractive now
“I’ve taken almost all of the free online courses,” said OLLI member Diane Hundley. “I was able to learn something I didn’t know about. It was wonderful. And what else should I do? It wasn’t like I could go shoe shopping.”
“Learning online is a lot easier than it was a few years ago.”
Another OLLI member, Mimi Krystal, said: “The lack of intellectual stimulation during the quarantine was a real problem for my mother, who is almost a hundred years old and has poor eyesight. OLLI helped her and her neighbor sign up for an online class about Lincoln and another about Rodgers and Hammerstein who they love.”
The Duke program is among the largest of 124 university lifelong learning Osher programs supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation of San Francisco. Almost all of them have scrambled to expand online no-credit offerings to the more than 200,000 people they serve across the country, mostly retirees.
“It makes lemonade when you have lemons,” said Marion Jervay, Vice President of OLLI at Duke.
By going online, OLLI and other such programs allow older students to participate, regardless of where they live or how anxious they are to leave home.
“There are even more ways to join an OLLI community than there used to be [the pandemic]said Chris McLeod, director of OLLI at Duke.
As it turned out, the appetite was enormous.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we first started going online. We thought two hundred people might be interested,” McLeod said. “We heard from five hundred and fifty people straight away and that number grew to one thousand three hundred and fifty in two and a half weeks.”
The teachers, the courses, the costs
OLLI programs vary by type of instructor and cost. Some faculty members are current or former professors; others are recognized experts, often with interesting backgrounds. For example, an online OLLI At Duke class was recently taught about the Super Bowl by Jim Steeg, a former NFL manager who ran the extravaganza.
Typically, students pay modest membership and tuition fees. Before the pandemic, Duke’s personal OLLI program generally charged an annual membership fee of $45 plus $40 or $70 for courses lasting four to six weeks. Online offerings started with free courses, but have been priced at $70 as course organizers and students become more comfortable with Zoom.
Course topics also vary widely, and some courses are specifically tied to the pandemic.
The OLLI program at the University of California, Berkeley has organized its online courses ranging from Mohandis Gandhi to the search for extraterrestrial life. At the University of Cincinnati, OLLI topics are fashion, women writers and the Vietnam War. The University of Michigan has a Covid-19 inspired class on vaccines and Colorado State University is teaching how the coronavirus crisis could affect November’s election.
How online learning just got easier
Most of the new online classes are taking place on Zoom, which many adult students have become familiar with during the pandemic.
“Learning online is a lot easier than it was a few years ago,” says McLeod. “I love how our members have been willing to try things they never imagined. I remember one session where one of our members unmuted and we heard her say to her husband, ‘We did it!’”
In OLLI online courses, students can sometimes ask the lecturers questions using the Zoom chat function.
Longtime OLLI member Richard Ellman, who lives in a seniors’ community in Durham, is among those who have adapted to the new way of learning.
“The more I use the technology, the easier it gets,” he says. “I miss being around other people in the class and being able to share ideas. There is less give and take than in a normal classroom. But given the alternatives we have now, I like it.”
Miss human contact
Another member, Margaret Brill, also misses the human contact of face-to-face teaching. But she has embraced the online version and taught two courses herself. “I don’t have to drive or park, and there are several days’ worth of class notes in case I miss one,” she said.
Steve Thaxton, who runs a center at Northwestern University
The new version of OLLI Classes is one of many popular and growing online options for older learners. Others include TED Talks, MasterClass, The Great Courses, Coursera, EdX, and Skillshare.
What’s new at One Day U
There is also a new One Day University online education and entertainment program. Before the pandemic, the main business model was to lure adults, generally 50+, to live events across the country (typical cost: $119 or $179) with well-known professors from leading universities. “Our market is people who think it’s fun to hear a presentation from superstar hosts, like a Broadway show or to visit a museum,” said Steve Schragis, the company’s director.
The outbreak of the coronavirus forced One Day U to cancel its scheduled programs and quickly get online.
It now has a new subscription service ($7.95 per month) with five live-streamed lectures per week and recorded lectures, as well as the ability to send professor questions through Zoom’s chat feature. And starting June 1st, there will also be a $19.95 premium service for One Day U members ($39.95 for others) with Zoom classes limited to 25 students to have Q&A with professors to facilitate.
“The good news is that now there is no queue to get to the bathroom,” jokes Schragis.
One Day U and many OLLI programs anticipate continuing to offer online classes once their regular programs resume.
Their leaders see online learning as a way to reach more people and help their older students stay connected even when they can’t attend in person.
McLeod says, “Even if they have a hip prosthesis or can no longer drive, they can still enroll and have a course with their beloved OLLI instructor.”