Over the past couple of years, I would often talk about how I thought the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University could expand our horizons by offering some courses and lectures online as part of our curriculum. The conversations about distance learning would always start with “One day…”—envisioning some undefined future when we would magically learn about the best eLearning modes and even more magically, implement them.

Turns out, the future is now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic

When stay at home orders came in mid-March, Osher had just started the spring semester. Only a few days in, we were shutting down without any clear idea of when we would return. The hope, of course, was that we would have this pandemic kicked in a couple of weeks. It became evident that this wouldn’t be the case. So, without much choice in the matter, the Osher staff immersed ourselves in webinars and video meetings about the best approach for us to transition to online delivery. Instead of magic, we set our sights on learning what online platforms would work best for us. We thought about how we would need to train our instructors on how to deliver their lectures online and then train our students on how to feel comfortable learning online. Then, just as importantly, we’d need to ask our members to take a leap of faith and take courses online even if they weren’t feeling so tech savvy.

It takes a village

I have always marveled at the wonderful support that Osher receives from our colleagues within our Division, but more than ever, the collaboration and problem solving spirit of “we can do this” came through again and again. Osher students generally range in age from 50 to 99. Most members are in their mid-60s to mid-70s, with a good number in their 80s and a few beyond. Lest you think that comfort with technology is based on age, I’m here to say that isn’t necessarily the case. There are some 90+ year olds who have great facility with technology and some younger folks who would just as soon throw their computers out the window. This goes for our instructors too. Some of our instructors simply weren’t confident enough in their computer skills to translate their courses for remote learning, while one instructor who is in his early 90s was the first to ask me when he could resume teaching his class via Zoom.

Change is hard and suddenly, the pandemic forced everyone to face change in almost every aspect of their lives. Because Osher at Towson University is as much a community as a place to learn, we wanted to maintain as much engagement with our members as possible during such an unprecedented and uncertain time. Thank goodness we have tools like Zoom and other online platforms. And, thankfully, in the true spirit of lifelong learning, many Osher students were game to try out remote learning.

Connection, not perfection

Our mantra this spring, summer, and fall has been “connection and not perfection”. We are still learning too, after all. Beyond that, we have all experienced the dreaded “technical difficulties” here and there. In the spring, we offered pre-recorded lectures that could be viewed on demand by our members and their friends for free. In the summer, renewing members were able to participate in our “Zoom into Summer” series that included both live and pre-recorded lectures. The fall semester consisted of a full slate of four-week and eight-week online courses in a variety of subjects. Throughout the semester, we received feedback from Osher students who let us know how happy they were that they gave online classes a try because to their surprise, they really enjoyed them. While nobody considers the online classes as a replacement for in-person learning, there are some pluses that were noted. Nobody missed commuting or trying to find a parking space. In a couple of the music history courses, students reveled in their chance to dance or sing along. Others enjoyed the convenience of watching the recording of a class that they had missed.

Now, we’re getting ready to offer lectures and workshops in January and February while we’re also finalizing our spring semester, which starts in March. We hope that 2021 isn’t so trying on everyone and that the world returns to some sense of normalcy. Since March, “the new normal” has become something we are all trying to both adapt to and understand. I believe that our new normal is enhanced by the confidence that all of us are gaining in our ability to be resilient, to learn, and to grow during challenging times.