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After a brief pause to regroup with Zoom, older learners take change in their stride at Tufts’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
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An Osher online class. “People tell us again and again that what they like most about the program is the ability to socialize and keep intellectually sharp,” Sam Ruth said.
May 7, 2020

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When Sam Ruth got word that Tufts was moving to online classes in mid-March, he was understandably nervous. Spring classes for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) had just started, and he had two days to figure out if the proverbial Plan B—going online—would work.

He had to consider that members, ranging from their sixties through their nineties—the average student is mid-seventies—might find that online learning just couldn’t replace the social interactions they so looked forward to. And he had to consider that two-thirds of study group leaders are also members, teaching classes ranging from a Brief Introduction to Byzantine History to Beginning Violin.

“Those folks needed to suddenly learn how to lead a class on Zoom,” said Ruth, who became director of the organization last year, after six years as head of continuing education at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine. “There was the real potential we would have to close for the spring and then figure out how to regroup.” 

Still, he also knew that if classes were cancelled, he’d have some very disappointed members. “People tell us again and again that what they like most about the program is the ability to socialize and keep intellectually sharp,” he said. “So it felt like it would be a real dereliction of duty for us to give up, or even just to take a couple of months to figure it out, especially when each month feels like a year.”

As it turned out, that love of learning won out. Hitting the pause button for a week, Osher transitioned 80 percent of its spring courses to an online format with the help of tech savvy members, some work study students, and staff.

Grace Hall, chair of the Osher executive board, said she was amazed at the number of people who were willing to switch over. “They just said, give me a little training and we’ll see how it works.” She is quick to credit Ruth for making that happen as fast as it did. “He just jumped right in,” she said.

Bob Pride, A67, retired from the insurance business, admits he was skeptical at first, because the “whole goal is to be a community,” he said. He’s been a member of Osher for fourteen years and enjoyed not only classes but also group activities like clubs (history and book, among others) and coming back to campus for Lunch and Learn speakers.

But like everyone else, he was ready to try it; among the several courses he was looking forward to was a class centered around selected TED Talks.  “Our two leaders ran a test to get us more confident, and it ran pretty well,” he said. “We used breakout rooms for small discussions, and they used the polling feature to find out what we liked and what we learned.”

He’s now a convert. “Online learning was always important, and now even more,” said Pride, a political science major at Tufts who went on to earn an M.B.A. and take countless night classes on the insurance industry. “I’ve been a lifelong learner my whole life,” he said. “Why stop now?”

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OLLI has existed in one form or another at Tufts for about twenty years. Fifteen years ago it transitioned from being the Tufts Institute of Learning and Retirement to become the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Tufts, with a grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation. One of 124 OLLIs across the country, its key characteristic is that members energize the program—and the curriculum—with their own diverse passions and life experiences.

Hall is one of the spring instructors who transitioned to teaching virtually. The retired chemistry teacher was poised to start “A Romp through the History of Chemistry”—a brisk overview for non-scientists spanning 3500 BC to 2019. She had a trusty PowerPoint ready to go, but then worked on a new strategy that incorporated face time.

“The main thing I found is that you have to allow time for people to be face to face so you will get questions; you need the gallery view as well as the slides,” she said. “And I encourage them to just say anything during the presentation—they can interrupt. It took a little time before people were comfortable with that, but once we got going, it was fine.”

Joyce Carpenter, a member of the curriculum committee and a former philosophy professor at the University of Charleston, was also part of the virtual transition. The shift came when she and a co-teacher were into week three of an eight-week course on the essays of Scottish philosopher David Hume.  

While all agreed to deploy Zoom, “some were skeptical at first,” she said, but were soon “happily surprised. People were stunned by how easy it was.”

It also gave the students a sense of connection, she added. “They see it as intellectual stimulation, but after a few weeks of this quarantine, they see it as having a social function as well.”

The appreciation reinforces OLLI’s mission. According to Ruth, OLLI now has more than 800 active members this year, an all-time high. The program offers local senior citizens opportunities to come to campus to take courses on the Medford/Somerville campus, but that is just one of three locations.

The organization has partnered with Brookhaven at Lexington, a retirement community, for a decade, and this spring for the first time it started a relationship with the Stoneham Senior Center, envisioned as second partner satellite location.

Ruth said that the successful transition to Zoom—and the positive feedback—is not a complete surprise. OLLI members, after all, are a “vibrant, active group of people who have strong opinions, and who love to talk, and argue, and question.”

More than 250 members took advantage so far of Zoom when it was offered, he said, and of those 200 are coming back for 更多 courses in May—all of which are virtual.

The virtual environment also opens up wider opportunities for classes, said Ruth. OLLI is offering twice as many summer classes by virtue of not needing to be restricted by classrooms, and a “strong outpouring of new course proposals” have come in, both from members and from graduate students at Tufts “who suddenly have some time on their hands and who like the opportunity to teach.”

Looking back, Ruth is grateful that OLLI took the leap of faith into Zoom. He recalls a recent Zoom call with his curriculum committee, “where I felt a rush of positive emotion. Many of these folks, if I had proposed at the beginning of March that we were going to do some virtual courses, would have said, ‘No way.’ But we made it work—that was a good feeling. I can’t tell you the number of nice notes I’ve received that say: ‘You know what? This isn’t the same, but it’s pretty good, and I’m so thankful to have it.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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