James HamelbrechtThe coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered the ways education takes place at all levels and institutions, including the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston. OLLI, which serves an older student population with an elevated COVID-19 risk, responded quickly to the virus early in its spring semester.

 The Gerontology Institute Blog recently talked with James Hermelbracht, the director of UMass Boston’s OLLI program, about the decisions that were made, what actually happened in the spring and how that experience is shaping plans for the fall semester and beyond. The following transcript is edited for space and clarity.

Q: Let’s start by describing how the COVID-19 pandemic completely upended plans for the spring OLLI semester.

A: It played out on several levels. Things were changing so quickly as soon as the semester started. We were already hearing a few members say, “Maybe not this semester.” They were seeing the news and felt unsure about being in a classroom or taking public transportation. We were three days into our spring semester when the decision was made to first postpone. That was mid-March and we postponed until April 1. But it became very clear that our members, being in the high-risk category for age, were not that enthusiastic about coming back. We decided to cancel or postpone our entire spring semester just a few days prior to the university making the decision that everything would become remote.

Q: So you were responding to dramatic change on the spot. How did you and the OLLI leadership approach that?

A: We had some big challenges. One was training facilitators to move their courses online. OLLI had distance learning in terms of video conferencing, but we had never offered a course online before. Being part of the university, we were able to get a Zoom account. We started by asking our facilitators, “Who’s willing to try this?” Eventually, we offered 22 courses this spring. That was down from the 72 we had scheduled. The 22 facilitators were brave and really wanted to try this, and so our office helped train them. We also held also practice sessions with them and the OLLI members who chose to continue with the courses.

Q: What happened in terms of participation levels?

A: For one thing, we did not reopen registration. We wanted to be supportive of our facilitators and didn’t want to do max capacity given this was their first time teaching online. We never got 100 percent OLLI participation in the courses we offered online. If we had 40 folks registered for an in-person class, we ended up maybe getting 20 or 25 who wanted to take it online. But now with folks being at home, with no place to go and no competing appointments, we saw the attendance for OLLI online courses stayed consistent through the entire course. That was an interesting outcome.

Q: How did you try to prepare members for online learning on such short notice?

A: We did training for OLLI members on the basics of Zoom, how to install it and how to get into a meeting to participate in a course. We offered over 20 trainings on Zoom basics and over 200 OLLI members went through those trainings.

Q: How did that go?

A: OLLI members were often surprised at how easy the transition to online learning is, or how they actually learn from online learning. I think they were probably skeptical. But we’ve had folks say, “This wasn’t the same as in-person but I was still able to learn. I was still able to engage with my other OLLI members.” I give credit to our OLLI facilitators who really just took to this new technology and embraced it. They adapted very well and found the tools necessary to achieve what they wanted to in their classes and discussions.

Q: So looking ahead, what has influenced your plans for the fall semester?

A: The biggest thing that’s influenced our planning for the fall is semester is that OLLI made the decision early to go remote. That happened in early May. So instead of having only two or three weeks to turn something around, we now have the entire summer to work with our facilitators to do more in-depth training. We are fortunate that we have survey data from our facilitators, getting their thoughts on what worked and what didn’t work online. We’re developing training programs based on that feedback, as well as seeing if we can enlist university resources to help if we ever need additional training.

Q: How are you using that time to help prepare members as well?

A: We’re offering Zoom trainings throughout the summer and even early fall, just to help our members get those skills down. And we’re offering summer programs, which we have never done but we didn’t want to lose the momentum. When folks sign up for fall courses, they now know these really will be online and they need to have Zoom. We’re excited because we have right now 55 confirmed courses for the fall. We’ll be hosting a virtual open house well before that, on July 29. We’re still shy of our usual 70 course, but very pleased with what is being offered. We’re also going to be supplementing our offerings with other unique opportunities. We’re developing some speaker series around certain issues to allow for a different learning experience.

Q: Does an online program offer OLLI any other advantages?

A: We aren’t weighed down by people’s ability to get to the Boston campus or being within close distance of Hingham or Braintree or UMass. With an online format, we’re able to reach out to other experts or presenters who might offer another topic that we haven’t been able to find a presenter for. Now we’re not limited by physical distance. Also, we were limited by the number of available classrooms in the past. With the freedom of Zoom, we are able to schedule things differently. Also, our members on the South Shore will have more opportunities because usually our number of courses at the off-site locations were smaller.

Q: You’ve tried a lot of new things in response to an emergency. How much of that do you expect to become a permanent part of the program offered by OLLLI at UMass Boston?

A: OLLI’s presence online is not going to go away once we find ourselves back in the classroom with in-person teaching. We need to acknowledge that our members are actually enjoying learning from home. They’ve loved the fact that they don’t have to get into their car, fight traffic, pay a parking fee to be on campus. Even if we were to offer courses in-person, OLLI needs to and will continue to offer some form of online learning as well. We’re going to find people who really don’t want to come back. We don’t want to shy away and ignore these folks. I think we have found a niche where lifelong learning can be just as effective online as it is in the classroom. OLLI and UMass Boston need to embrace that.