Senior Learners Embrace Unfamiliar Technology, Maintain Community

Stony Brook’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) runs educational programs open to all retired and semi-retired people over the age of 50. For those interested in expanding their social and intellectual horizons in a university setting, venues for participation in the past have included peer-taught workshops, lectures, special events, committees and social activities. 

So when sweeping limitations to on-campus activities were announced in order to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, the program’s administrators had to react quickly. The team found creative ways of continuing  regularly scheduled workshops, committee meetings, elections, art exhibits and the like by leveraging online technologies.

OLLI class

OLLI “Lunch and Learn” class meets online.

Resilience is the name of the game for this program, part of the School of Professional Development, which has seen its numbers jump from 600 to 950 since June 2019.

Many of our members have never used their webcam,” OLLI Program Manager Breanne Delligatti said. “But they are learning and even loving it. During the pandemic OLLI members, workshop leaders, advisory board members, staff and student assistants came together and bridged the gap in communications through the use of technology.” 

Delligatti and the administration focused their efforts to keep the community together and continue OLLI’s educational mission. One of the most popular new events hosted via Zoom is “Lunch, Learn and Laugh,” which meets once weekly and epitomizes the social experience.

OLLI Member Relations Assistant Liz Wilson does her part to keep everyone in the virtual loop by sending the group a weekly newsletter that includes links to various resources including museum tours, cooking classes, TED talks and fitness videos. 

“We have 36 workshops online now,” said Delligatti. Technology is often challenging to senior populations, and social distancing has required them to become familiar with new technologies such as Zoom.

“Our members are remaining connected as a community of retired lifelong learners through these difficult times. Members are able to interact on this digital platform without the risk of COVID-19,” she added.

“To see everyone through Zoom, to follow up through texting and chats, to have some brief semblance of normality in its newest version: I really could just cry for the gift of it,” said OLLI participant Michele McMath.

“I have friends who are fighting the virus,” McMath said. “I have friends who know people who have died. Yet when I am feeling the worst, there will come a text, a Zoom reminder of an upcoming class, something of interest or something helpful that is being forwarded.”

Indeed, more than a third of OLLI’s workshops are up and running online, driven in large part by Delligatti’s concern that many of the members do not have a spouse or family and home and would feel isolated and lonely without these opportunities to connect.

“This drove me to work as hard as I could with the help of my team and support from the School of Professional Development to make sure we got this up and running as quickly as possible. It is truly amazing to see how fast our members have adapted to this new technology and how they have embraced the situation. They are so excited to be able to stay connected with their friends safely from home,” Delligatti said.

She had help from graduate student OLLI Assistant Devon Hannon ‘21, who coached members in Zoom etiquette such as learning when and when not to speak. 

Delligatti explained that learning when to mute and unmute remediated the “Hey Mary, hey Bob all trying to talk at once syndrome” that dominated the initial Zoom meetings. 

Undergraduate OLLI Assistant Maziar Farahzad ’20 also pitched in by teaching workshop leaders how to use Zoom to teach their classes, including sharing slides and documents, which was a sticking point for many facilitators.  

OLLI Advisory Board Curriculum Committee Chairperson Mary Negra said: “The workshop leaders carried on admirably despite experiencing some early technical hurdles. Once we get a few little glitches out the way this will be absolutely wonderful.”

OLLI Committee Chairperson Robert Stone went so far as to predict that the members will embed some of the technology into the OLLI experience going forward. “This will change things in a fundamental way,” Stone said. “We could have hybrid workshops. Our snowbird population could participate in a more meaningful way. So a lot of good things could come out of this.”

OLLI Advisory Board President Elect Jothi Curcio agreed. “We should interact like this in the future. People who can’t drive or can’t walk to OLLI events or dropped out for whatever reason can now be connected and don’t have to be isolated. We can combine digital learning with traditional methods of learning.”

 OLLI President Ed Metzendorf praised the efforts at keeping the program running online. “Although nothing beats face to face interaction, virtual learning is a strong alternative that allows us to continue to enjoy the college experience in the midst of a crisis that the whole world is going through,” he said.

 All of which makes OLLI’s new tagline, “Learning Never Retires,” that much more meaningful.

— Glenn Jochum

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