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OLLI at Clemson providing virtual opportunities for Upstate SC lifelong learners

May 12, 2020

Clemson’s undergraduate and graduate students aren’t the only group shifting their learning online this spring. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Clemson University is also moving their classes to a virtual format in response to COVID-19.

OLLI at Clemson is a community of more than 1,400 people that provides member-driven, volunteer-led learning opportunities to its members, which come from a variety of backgrounds and education levels. Although its classes are open to everyone, its members are generally older adults.

Many of the institute’s program options were originally focused on in-person experiences that are difficult to replicate online, such as day-long hiking excursions and craft-making classes. Julie Vidotto, director of the institute, said that emphasis on outdoor experiences posed a challenge when planning virtual programming.

An OLLI member looking at a laptop.

OLLI at Clemson is moving to an online delivery format to meet the needs of its members throughout the upstate. Image credit: OLLI at Clemson

“There were a number of variables we needed to consider, such as which classes could most reasonably shift to an online delivery format and how our members could feel they were given an equal opportunity to participate in class discussions,” Vidotto said. “We started with training sessions and four test classes in early April to gauge how our members might adapt to interacting with us online, and we were blown away by the immediate, positive response.”

After the first classes, several members contacted OLLI staff to thank them for their efforts; one member even called the institute a “vital lifeline” that is keeping them occupied during the pandemic. Members also said they enjoyed seeing other people and that some would be open to other online learning opportunities when social distancing is no longer encouraged.

The test classes provided valuable insight into what resources are needed for OLLI to scale up their online learning, Vidotto said. OLLI is now offering a short, three-week spring mini-term of classes, which they plan to expand over the summer.

OLLI’s pivot to online learning is in line with many of the other OLLIs around the country. The move to online delivery keeps older adults engaged during self-quarantine while offsetting the revenue loss associated with isolation measures brought on by COVID-19.

Chip Stapleton, who serves as the Clemson institute’s board chairman, said the decision to pivot to online learning was an easy one to make.

“We had always considered our face-to-face learning community as part of the appeal to our members, however, we know we can create similar opportunities to connect online,” Stapleton said. “Our members need this programming now more than ever in a time of social distancing, so we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they’re supported.”

Shortly after the board advised OLLI staff to consider online instruction, they found themselves facing a steep learning curve, but they’re proud of how the OLLI community has risen to the challenge.

“Our challenge, like the university’s, has been to bring both OLLI members and volunteer instructors up to some level of comfort with Zoom technology as soon as possible, while still learning how to use it ourselves,” Vidotto said. “The Osher National Resource Center has been hosting continuous Zoom training, and really creating and modeling best practices, which has been a terrific help.”

Vidotto added that the OLLI board has also helped them to more quickly adopt online delivery than they would have otherwise.

“We always say that OLLI at Clemson is about community, and our board members have gone above and beyond in exemplifying that,” Vidotto said. “We’re so grateful for their – and our members’ – continued support.”

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To learn more about OLLI at Clemson, including class schedules and how to become a member, visit OLLIatClemson.org.



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