In its shift to online classes, OLLI has learned how much more its programs offer beyond course content 

Jim Hermelbracht has spent the last two years learning to adapt and regroup, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, as director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), part of the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston, Hermelbracht led his staff and board in shifting their classes and programs for older learners online. They are planning a mix of online and in-person offerings for the spring 2022 session, but they know they may have to regroup as the Omicron variant surges.   

If Hermelbracht is looking for silver linings, he could see that the adaptations forced by the pandemic actually have strengthened his organization’s focus and enriched its mission. Through all the planning and shifting and adjusting to Zoom video conferencing, it’s become clear that OLLI has never been just about learning. Online classes have kept OLLI members safe from the virus, but the programs also have kept members connected to each other, maybe more than ever. To that end, OLLI is holding its second Winter Programs session of free offerings to keep members connected in January and February. 

“I know far more people now than I ever would have in person,” says Ed Ford, OLLI board chair and co-chair of its theatre committee who has participated in OLLI classes and programs for 12 years. Many facilitators have built in time at the beginning of their online classes for participants to introduce themselves one-on-one in Zoom breakout rooms, he says, allowing him to meet new people and learn more about familiar acquaintances than he had pre-pandemic. 

“I’ve always seen OLLI as a community as opposed to only a learning community, and the pandemic has contributed to that in a positive way,” Ford says. “You can probably get some of these classes anywhere, and maybe for free [OLLI charges an annual membership fee]. But you don’t have the ongoing opportunity to interact with all these people.” 

Myrna Finn agrees. She chairs OLLI’s curriculum committee, serves on the newly established diversity and inclusion committee, and has facilitated classes over the last five years. Finn sees the shift to online classes as a mixed bag. She misses in-person interactions, and she misses being able to read the room as a presenter. But she recognizes that attending classes from the safety and convenience of home is an extraordinary opportunity for many OLLI members.  

“People took to online classes for one important reason: It prevented them from being isolated,” Finn says. “We’ve heard many times in the pandemic, ‘Thank god for OLLI, it saved me.’ People were cautious and scared about going out and OLLI gave them an opportunity to come together. For people with physical and health challenges, it’s certainly easier to sit down in front of your computer than having to get somewhere in Boston.” 

“Overall, shifting to online programming has been a rewarding experience,” says Hermelbracht. “We miss the in-person connections, we miss seeing people. You can’t replicate the conversations that happen in a classroom while you’re waiting for a program to begin. But we have broadened our access. Our members who live on the South Shore who didn’t like traveling to Boston can take classes easily now. Members who have mobility challenges can participate from their homes.” 

John Cheney—and his wife, Carol, as his driver—can attest to this. Cheney has attended OLLI classes for 10 years, ever since retiring from running a business in the construction industry. Thanks to OLLI, he has fallen in love with opera, poetry, and Middle East history among other new interests. He joined the OLLI board, serving as co-chair of the outreach committee and a member of the diversity and inclusion committee. Walking has become difficult for Cheney so before the pandemic, he depended on his wife to drive him from their South Shore home to the UMass Boston. Once on campus, he needs a motorized scooter to get around.  

Switching to online classes felt “seamless,” Cheney says. In spring 2020 he attended OLLI classes from home while his niece sat at his dining room table, finishing her senior year of classes with Boston College. An added bonus: the captioning option for Zoom sessions helps with his poor hearing.  

“The value of this program is absolutely amazing,” says Carol Cheney, “the quality of the instruction and how it satisfies your intellectual curiosity.” And, she laughs, OLLI “keeps John busy so I can do other things.”  

Hermelbracht loves that OLLI’s successful shift to online classes busts the myth that older people can’t handle technology. OLLI has trained almost 300 members on how to use Zoom along with special training for class facilitators.  

“As I tell people in my class, push the button! What’s the worst that can happen? Your computer is not going to explode!” says Finn. “People adapted to Zoom because they wanted to be in relationships, and this was the only way it could happen.” 

“Everyone’s willingness to take a chance, to step outside their comfort zone, showed how much they truly believe in the mission of OLLI,” says Hermelbracht. If anything, people have gotten too comfortable with Zoom, he laughs. “Now it’s 9:59 am and they log on just in time for their 10 am class, and they’re eating!” Members also have had to learn moderation, that taking more classes just because they could wasn’t healthy. “At first people were signing up for 6, 8, 10 courses, but then they realized it was too much to sit in front of their computers all day.” 

You can’t please everyone, of course. “We have members who lack the technology at home, or online learning is not appealing to them,” Hermelbracht says. OLLI’s membership is down 30 percent, with almost 400 members not renewing in the last few years—a trend mirrored among Osher Lifelong Learning programs nationally.  

“The surprise is those who have stuck with us,” says Hermelbracht. “Some people renewed their membership to support us even though they didn’t want to take online classes. We had our most successful fundraiser yet this last year with $53,000 in donations. We are humbled by so much generosity.” 

Navigating the path forward is an interesting challenge, he says. “We realize that online classes aren’t going away, we would lose people if we just offered in-person classes.” Zoom eliminated a number of challenges such as heavy traffic on the expressway to UMass Boston, campus parking fees going up, and shuttle buses so crowded that older people couldn’t find seats. “But what is the best balance of online and in-person to meet the needs of current and future members?”  

Part of coming back in person is ensuring that facilitators feel safe, Hermelbracht notes. “We’ve always made the decision based on what is best for the health and welfare of our members as well as our facilitators.” 

Finn hopes to teach in person on campus this spring, wearing a mask and using a microphone. “I think we need human-to-human contact,” she says. If she has to resort to Zoom, she’ll continue to use breakout rooms to encourage small group conversations.  

“As a facilitator, I get so much from the members of the class,” she says. “People know so much and they’re willing to share, they like to talk and be in relationship. It fills people’s needs in so many ways. OLLI classes support people’s desire to learn and grow and change, and those are the only things we do with regularity on this planet.” 

“Flexibility is the name of the game,” Hermelbracht says. “We can’t hold on to old rules anymore.”