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Lifelong Learning

Technology Forever

Higher education's lifelong learning programs for the 50-plus student are embracing online presentation tools, vodcasting, peer-to-peer file sharing, and more.

Technology ForeverWho says classroom learning has to end with a formal degree? Probably not many college graduates going back to school to earn additional certifications or to retool their careers. And certainly not any of the non-traditional students involved in non-credit lifelong learning programs at colleges and universities across the country.

Today, "lifelong learning" encompasses a wide range of student profiles and curricular designs, but a growing subset of the nation's lifelong learning programs are non-credit and designed specifically for students over the age of 50. The good news is that "over 50" doesn't mean "out of the technology loop." Most of the lifelong learning programs-- especially those at schools such as Berkshire Community College (MA), Duke University (NC), Emory University (GA), and the University of Southern Maine-- are now embracing tools such as videoconferencing and vodcasting, in new and innovative ways.

Generally speaking, few of the technologies in these programs are what academic technologists would consider cutting-edge; certainly some have been eclipsed by snazzier emerging technologies on traditional and virtual campuses. But to serve those lifelong learning students who may not be as familiar with technology, program coordinators have selected those tools that are relatively easy to learn and even easier to use.

That doesn't mean the efforts are not significant: In building tech-enabled curricula for older students, these programs are enabling their constituents to learn a host of worthwhile skills and, at the same time, are providing a valuable revenue stream for the institution. To get a snapshot of some of the technologies in use right now (and to uncover tools and approaches you could be instituting in your school's lifelong learning program), scan the rundown of well-thought-out and innovative programs that follow.

Viva the Videoconference

Stanley Applebaum

AT BERKSHIRE Community College, lifelong learning students in Professor Applebaum's course on Joseph Stalin have the option of attending live lectures or viewing them via video feed.

In the mountains of western Massachusetts, lifelong learning students at Berkshire Community College are abuzz over videoconferencing. The learning program, which launched during the spring semester of the 2007-2008 school year as a joint venture with two other Massachusetts institutions, Williams College and Bard College at Simon's Rock, connects students at Berkshire's main campus in Pittsfield with students at Berkshire's Great Barrington campus, about 25 miles away. The goal: to enable students to learn without requiring them to travel considerable distances.

The program's initial course, "Uncle Joe: Not Your Average Joe and Not Your Average Uncle," was constructed around the topic of the former Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin. During the six-lecture class, Professor Stanley Applebaum divided his time between both campuses, giving three lectures in Pittsfield and three in Great Barrington. When he spoke in Pittsfield, the talk was broadcast via live video feed in Great Barrington. When he spoke in Great Barrington, it was broadcast back to Pittsfield. A total of 31 students had the option of attending the live lectures or attending the lectures in the room with the video feed, whichever was more convenient for them.

"With gas prices going through the roof, students absolutely loved the flexibility," says Barbara Hochberg, executive director of the school's lifelong learning program, which technically is an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (see "Founding Funders"). "Some of the people in Great Barrington said they wouldn't have signed up for the class if they had to drive all the way to Pittsfield."

The technology used in this initiative was not complicated: On the back end, the school facilitated video transmission at each site with a Series 7000 compression/decompression device from Polycom-- the VSX 7000e, which includes the Polycom IP codec, cameras, and microphones. (With the device, transmission rates over IP are typically made at 768 kilobits per second.) At both sites, technologists also deployed overhead Epson LCD projectors, a Polycom PowerCam PTZ camera directed at the speaker, a Sony EVI-D100 PTZ camera directed at the audience, and pull-down screens at each end of the rooms to display either graphical content or standard video of the instructor or audience. In addition, 36-inch TVs from Epson were stationed at each end of the rooms so that the audiences could see and hear each other. Via the use of this fairly straightforward technology mix, students were able to view panoramic shots of Applebaum behind the podium, interspersed with maps and other details from a PowerPoint slide deck.

The biggest challenge? Getting the passionate Applebaum to stand still and remain in the video frame, recalls Hochberg. No matter, she says: Students in Applebaum's class responded favorably to the seamless mixed-media approach. So far, she adds, those attending the current batch of classes-- multi-disciplinary courses about health issues and American literature-- have responded in the same way. In particular, Hochberg notes, students who attend classes with the in-person lecturer find it interesting to look into the television screen and interact with colleagues on the other end, having discussions in precisely the same manner they would if all students were in one room together.

"That these classes are being videoconferenced is relatively invisible to the students," Hochberg maintains. "For us, that speaks volumes: The easier technology is to employ, the more excited our students will get about it."

Lifelong learning educators at Emory University are investigating the use of Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis, and also have set their sights on peer-to-peer file-sharing via services like Google Apps.

V Is for Vodcast

Not all lifelong learning programs have embraced real-time video; instead, a number of programs at certain colleges and universities are using digital video podcasts (also known as "vodcasts") and video-on-demand applications to enhance the educational process in an asynchronous fashion.

At the University of Missouri, for instance, the lifelong learning program makes use of the school's distance education network to broadcast courses about ethics, technology, and a host of other subjects, to curious students in rural areas. At the University of California- San Diego, officials at the campus lifelong learning center have been videotaping lectures and posting them on YouTube, enabling anyone to download content when desired. In both cases, the programs fall under the auspices of existing distance education offerings, and are managed by each school's local lifelong learning affiliate group.

Few lifelong learning programs are doing as much with on-demand video as is Duke University's program. The average student there is 69, according to Catherine Frank, who heads up the school's lifelong learning center. She adds that a number of courses have introduced lifelong learners to the power of online lectures. One, entitled, "Going Back to College-- for Free," uses iTunes to access prerecorded lectures from professors at universities across the country. Another, taught by Professor Ian Goddard, is structured around, which hosts 15- to 20-minute video lectures on subjects ranging from sustainable development to vegetarianism.

In "Going Back to College," which has received rave reviews, students can take in lectures about physics (delivered by professors at the University of California-Berkeley) and lectures on poetry (courtesy of professors at Yale University [CT]). Goddard's class is even more popular. He begins each session by showing a lecture or two from Then he lists a number of discussion topics on the board and encourages students to sound off on what they've just heard. Topics discussed this past spring included:

  • What's Next in Tech
  • How the Mind Works
  • A Greener Future
  • Master Storytellers
  • Whipsmart Comedy

Frank says the class works well because it forces students to gather information with technology, yet allows them to process the information the oldfashioned way, via dialogue. "In this case, the technology is a means to an end," she says. "The technology delivers the lecture, which sparks discussion, and from that, they learn."

Teaching Tech

Duke's lifelong learning program also is blazing new trails in another area: teaching technology itself. In a modest computer lab with dual-boot iMacs that run Windows XP and Mac OS X, the school offers senior learners hands-on computer classes in everything from Windows XP, Microsoft Office, and Vista, to e-mail programs and browsers, website coding, and Adobe Photoshop. The program's photoediting students use PhotoShop Elements, and the school frequently offers courses in software programs such as PowerPoint, Pages (word processing for Mac), Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and AiSquared's ZoomText, as well.

Most of these classes are taught by retirees and "exiles" from the local high-tech industry. Others are taught by professors and members of the local community who have a passion for technology.

In a separate offering, Duke also boasts a lunchtime "home technology" discussion series, during which students come to campus with technology questions or problems they've encountered in their everyday lives. The lunches are staffed by experts and other students who have equipped themselves to address issues ranging from software glitches to cellular phone plans. According to Frank, the dual programs help create a stimulating intellectual environment for retirees who might otherwise allow technology to intimidate them.

"This is learning for the love of it-- a great alternative to sitting home and watching TV or going out and playing golf every day," she says.

Officials at the lifelong learning center at Emory University have developed a similarly comprehensive program with a two-pronged approach toward teaching older students to use technology. One set of offerings, IT@Emory, offers between 75 and 80 different courses in technical know-how. These courses range from the basic "Introduction to Windows," to more sophisticated classes that provide the background for mastering software programs such as Macromedia Flash, PowerPoint, and others.

A second set of offerings focuses squarely on web design. This curriculum, which has no formal name, is split into two tracks: web development and web design. The development portion takes students through all of the necessary steps to plan a website; the design portion provides them with the foundation for actually building the site that they plan. Jon Horn, director of professional programs, says that the entire curriculum generally takes about nine months to complete, and notes that most students usually choose one track or the other, though some take both.

Founding Funders

Osher spokespeople say social networking and virtual reality are up-and-coming technologies in lifelong learning curricula.

While any college or university can launch and operate a lifelong learning program for older learners, the majority of such programs in the US today have the word "Osher" in their formal title, indicating that the programs are affiliated with The Bernard Osher Foundation. This nonprofit, located in San Francisco, was founded by Bernard Osher in 1977 to improve quality of life through support for higher education and the arts. The foundation provides post-secondary scholarship funding to colleges and universities across the nation, with special attention to older reentry students. Since 2001, when the group funded the lifelong learning center at the University of Southern Maine, it has doled out nearly $80 million to lifelong learning institutes at more than 120 schools.

Osher Senior Program Officer David Blazevich is in charge of distributing those funds, and notes that the value of these programs is undeniable. "The programs really build communities around learning," he says. "In them, seasoned adults find a place to meet new people, be introduced to new ideas, and stay in touch with each other and with the larger world."

While the Osher Foundation has no say over curricula at individual institutes, Blazevich does keep tabs on the kinds of technologies many programs have embraced over the years. He cites social networking and virtual reality as up-andcoming technologies, but says the bulk of the Osher-funded programs have highlighted more traditional media: audio; video; and synchronous, web-based collaboration.

By and large, students drive these technology curricula. Blazevich notes that every Osher institute has a curriculum committee and most of these committees are composed of interested older students who demand a say in what they learn. Because none of these programs doles out degrees, each program can involve students more closely in the overall curriculum design process.

Interestingly, while many traditional college and university programs are moving toward online classrooms, most Osher programs require students to report to a physical classroom of some kind. Here, Blazevich says the thinking is all about building community. Since none of these older students actually has to take classes, most programs encourage them meet other students and learn in groups.

"We don't base success in these programs on test scores, but instead on whether people are engaged in a way that they stay healthy, active, and interested," says Blazevich. On so many levels, technology is proving an excellent means of meeting this goal.

To solidify the knowledge they've acquired throughout the curriculum, all web development and design students go through a capstone class in which they build a full website for a client-- in most cases, a local nonprofit. During this "final project," Horn explains, students build the site under the tutelage of a professional web designer. With input from this expert, each student must complete homework assignments and check in regularly via progress reports. In the end, Horn says, most students are as good as professionals, and have the skills to launch a second career if they so desire.

"The goal of the program is to equip students to be able to walk out of class and go and build a commercial website," he says. "While we don't teach the class to jump-start a second career, the thinking is that by the time students leave our program, they've designed a site in the way a professional designer would be expected to."

Technology Use to Come

With these kinds of classes in general technology use, lifelong learning programs can provide students with a foundation for confidently utilizing the technology tools of tomorrow. Already, it seems, many lifelong learning curriculum planners are building on such programs and looking ahead to those emerging technologies.

At Emory, Horn says he and his colleagues have started investigating the use of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and wikis, and have begun to discuss how lifelong learning educators can build new classes around these tools. Educators also have set their sights on peer-to-peer file-sharing, such as the kind facilitated by web-based collaboration services such as Google Apps.

Another technology that has piqued the interest of lifelong learning program coordinators is the multi-user virtual environment (MUVE), the framework behind applications such as Second Life. While a handful of graduate and undergraduate programs have embraced this technology as a substitute for meeting in person, lifelong learning programs working with this technology incorporate it into the classroom, providing hands-on instruction about interacting in virtual worlds.

Such is the case at the University of Southern Maine. There, the new fall semester course, "Explore Virtual Reality with Your Home Computer," was designed to give students an introduction to Second Life. In the class, taught by Anne Cardale, students learn how to negotiate virtual space, creating their own personal avatars, and familiarizing themselves with commands to get around in the MUVE. Though the class meets six times in person, students are expected to interact with each other in virtual space as well, collaborating on homework projects before, during, and after class.

Kali Lightfoot, the lifelong learning center's executive director, reports that the class has become one of the program's most popular offerings. She adds that while it is the only one of its kind to date, she envisions a time in the not-toodistant future where the university will offer "dozens" of similar classes, teaching students how to use a number of more sophisticated technologies.

"For people looking to connect with others, this is the perfect medium. All we're doing is showing them how."

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