Distance Learning: The Next Best Thing to Being There?

by Daniel Murphy

On October 10, I had the privilege of presenting at a symposium held by the National Resource Center for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, or OLLIs, provide university-level, non-credit educational opportunities for their membership, adults aged 50 and older. The symposium brought together a select group of OLLI directors from around the U.S. to consider a number of issues of interest to OLLIs, among the use of the distance learning technology.

My presentation, “Distance Learning: The Next Best Thing to Being There?”, considered the the acceptance of distance learning technology by the OLLI membership, who typically range in age from 50 to 90 years, with the average age being 70 years. The second consideration was can distance learning technology cultivate the sense of community that the OLLIs cultivate with their on-ground, in-person programming?

I began my presentation with a favorite quote from Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor and editor emeritus of Wired magazine; “Technology is anything invented after you were born.” In fact, older adults do use all sorts of technology, they just don’t identify it as such because it is familiar and ubiquitous.

A recent Pew Research Center study suggests there is widespread internet usage and home high-speed internet service among educated, affluent, younger seniors. Among all adults ages 65 and older, 67% use the internet and 51% have high-speed internet at home. Those usage rates increase among younger seniors (adults ages 65 to 69) where 82% use the internet and 66% have home high-speed internet – a rate comparable to the general adult population. For seniors with college education and household incomes of $50,000 and greater, more than 92% use the internet and more than 82% have high-speed internet.

Among older adults who go online, about three-quarters of them are online daily and one-third use social media. Eight percent of this group reports that they are online “almost constantly” while another 51% report that they are online “several times a day.” Among the seniors who are online, 34% use social media, with Facebook and Twitter being the most popular platforms.

These studies suggest that many older adults are online, they have high-speed internet access, and they are using social media – particularly the younger, educated, and affluent seniors who are likely to be OLLI members.

Fostering an Online Learning Community

The remainder of the presentation addressed some of the ways online learning technologies and their specific uses could foster an online learning community – particularly among the population of older adults served by OLLIs. These suggestions assume that the community will use a learning management system to house online courses, distribute electronic learning materials, and provide the means for learners to interact with one another.

Encourage discussion & collaboration

Threaded discussions are a standard feature of all LMSs. They provide a simple user interface for discussion participants to contribute and follow related comments on a topic or set of topics.

Web conferencing platforms, such as Adobe Connect, Blue Jeans, or WebEx, provide some of the immediacy of in-person interaction. While they may present technical challenges for some older learners, the setup of webcams and microphones has gotten much simpler and the web conferencing platforms themselves have gotten easier to use.

The ability to group learners randomly, by common interests, or by abilities is a standard feature of LMSs. In some cases, learners can form their own groups. Grouping learners can focus the topic of a discussion, make interactions feel more personal, and give group members a greater sense of engagement.

Two applications that are easy to use and readily foster discussion and collaboration are Yellowdig and Google Docs. Yellowdig is a collaborative online resource sharing and discussion application. Learners can post resources to a shared space, comment on them and comment on the resources that others posted. Google Docs allows groups of learners to create and edit shared documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

Offer courses in various formats: in-person, online, and blended

An obvious advantage of in-person courses is that they require no technology skills or computer equipment. The lack of technical skills or computer hardware do not prevent full participation in courses. The immediacy and ease of social interaction (for most learners) make in-person learning the standard for community building.

Online learning requires no travel to campus and flexible scheduling. It also accommodates the vacations and seasonal travel that older adults may engage in. Online is generally preferred by persons with disabilities. While it may, at first glance, present barriers to social interaction, these can be addressed through effective use of communication and collaboration technology.

Blended learning offers opportunities for both in-person and online learning and leverages the strengths of both approaches. It addresses the needs of those learners with disabilities, limited transportation, limited time or fragmented schedules, while still providing some opportunities for face-to-face interaction among learners. The idea of the “Flipped Classroom” has emerged from the blended approach. In the flipped classroom, the learners’ time is used more effectively because individual activities are completed online on the learner’s schedule. This frees the in-person time for greater interaction among learners and can be more personalized for each learner.

Deliver content both synchronously and asynchronously

For example, lectures or presentations that were delivered in person may be recorded for later viewing (by those that couldn’t attend) or reviewing (by those that had seen it in person). Discussions that were lively in person may produce more thoughtful comments from a more diverse group of participants. Learners are able to take their time in considering their responses, and the conversation isn’t dominated by those who can speak the fastest or loudest.

Consider Learners with Disabilities

Twenty-eight percent of adults age 65+ report a disability, so any learning community that is to meet the needs of the older adult population must consider making its electronic resources accessible to persons with disability. In a recent study, graduate students with disabilities expressed a preference for online learning for the following reasons:

  • Flexible schedule — Freedom to work when they were best able to focus.
  • Less stressful — Homes and assistive technology setup to accommodate their disabilities.
  • Opportunity to avoid or minimize stigma/prejudice due to their disability.

While the ages of the respondents in this survey of graduate students differs from the older adult population served by OLLIs, the needs and concerns of persons with disabilities of any age are, arguably, similar.

A number of adaptive technologies allow persons with disabilities to use online resources:

Developers and program administrators of online courses need to consider accessible page design and alternatives for media.

Offer “bite-sized” learning

Synchronous (in person and “real-time” online) learning requires larger blocks of time to be efficient. Hosting a guest speaker, for instance, requires facilities must be reserved and staffed, materials must be prepared and distributed. The speaker and audience make a commitment of time for the event. In order to be an efficient use of time and resources, synchronous events must last a significant duration of time. Because of this time requirement, their frequency must be limited.

Asynchronous, online learning can be delivered in smaller increments of time. Recorded presentations may be edited into shorter clips with descriptive labels to allow the learner to access specific portions of the presentation. In general, learning experiences can delivered in smaller “chunks”, allowing for more flexibility for the learner’s schedule while placing fewer demands on the learner.

Employ Storytelling

Storytelling places learning in meaningful personal and emotional context. This fosters greater attention and retention by learners. The sharing of personal stories can serve to strengthen the social connections between learners. With the permission of the storyteller, the stories shared may be recorded and serve as resources for future courses.

Incorporate Gamification

Game-like interactions

Clearly, games can promote social interaction and foster social, situated learning. Some consideration must be given to the appropriateness of the game to the subject matter and the audience. The games do not need to be complex or even games, per se. Any interaction that involves problem-solving, competition, the pursuit of a goal can be considered game-like. Consider these examples:

  • Scoring points for Yellowdig participation.
  • Roleplay.
  • Debate or Mock trial.
  • Scavenger hunt (on-ground or online).


Badges are a concept borrowed from video gaming that has been applied to social media and various. The badge, a digital image, is an emblem of accomplishment for achievements, participation or other milestones. In the context of a learning community, badges incentivize the behaviors that fosters community involvement. In developing a system of badges, consider significance of the badges awarded. Are the accomplishments significant to the learners? Are the desired behaviors being encouraged? Are minor accomplishments, such a participation, being exaggerated, so that all badges seem trivial? Also consider the design of the badges: is their appearance dignified or cartoonish?

Curate additional resources

An online repository of shared additional resources allows learners to pursue individual interests in greater depth and encourage the cultivation of common interests among learners. These additional resources do not have to be created or identified by the course developers. Instead, learners can identify readings, recordings, websites, and other resources that can be vetted by course developers and used in future courses. Furthermore, the documents, images, and other artifacts created by learners for one class could serve as examples or resources for subsequent classes on the same or related topics.

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