Online Learning–An Important New Component for Older Adult Well-Being and Quality of Life

A 2019 study by Xu et al. in JAMA Neurology found education and lifelong engagement in mental activities to be one of the most significant modifiable factors in reducing the risk of developing depression and dementia. Other research suggests that learning provides numerous benefits for older adults, including better cognitive functioning, improved mental well-being, overall health, social inclusion and self-confidence.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted the educational landscape and learning modalities. How did lifelong learning providers adapt to this change, and how did older adult learners experience online learning?

Adapting to changes in communication modes and learning is crucial for older adults who want to live independently. Trying to learn new technologies on one’s own can seem overwhelming, but with the proper training and support, older adults are capable of and more than willing to learn to engage with technologies that allow them to remain independent, potentially in their own homes, for longer.

Lifelong Learning Providers’ Online Learning Experience

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in early 2020, no one imagined how the health crisis would upend personal and professional lives and how education would need to change profoundly to maintain continuity in learning. But thanks to modern technology and digital communication tools, many education providers, including lifelong learning entities, were able to make full or partial transitions to online learning.

Pre-COVID, educational programs tailored toward older adult learners typically met face-to-face in a traditional classroom setting. In addition to regular course offerings, many lifelong learning providers—defined here as organized learning opportunities for and with older adults—offered socialization opportunities, including field trips, lunches and peer-led groups around varied interests. When COVID-19 emerged, the lifelong learning field faced the quandary of whether or not to move its educational programs for older learners online, when some had never used a computer, or even a cellphone.

But demand for the online format remained unknown. A needs assessment conducted at the Nova Southeastern University (NSU) Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) in South Florida indicated that more than half of its participants were eager to learn the technology necessary to continue with classes, rather than to be cut off from the program and their classmates.

To make the transition to online learning, the LLI collaborated with the NSU Public Health program and other undergraduate volunteer students and launched intergenerational tutoring opportunities. In this program, tech-savvy students taught and enabled interested older adult learners to successfully navigate the online learning environment. 

‘84 percent of respondents felt that the LLI online programs positively affected their overall quality of life.’

To gauge the impact of this transition to online learning and intergenerational engagement, the LLI designed and implemented a follow-up quantitative research study in partnership with NSU Public Health (Lifelong Learning Institute Zoom Assessment August 2020, Nova Southeastern University Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine). The online survey results, in which 127 LLI members ages 60 to 90 participated, were encouraging and revealed the importance to elders of maintaining a connection to the program, albeit a virtual one. Most significant were the following findings:

  • Live vs. Recorded Online Classes: 65 percent of respondents found live class meetings preferable and valuable when compared to viewing recordings.
  • Impact on Well-being: 82 percent of respondents agreed that the LLI online programs had helped to improve their overall mood.
  • Impact on Quality of Life: 84 percent of respondents felt that the LLI online programs positively affected their overall quality of life.

Research conducted at other older adult education programs emphasizes the positive aspects of online learning on older adults’ lives.

When COVID-19 forced all in-person classes to transition online, Los Angeles Pierce College’s Older Adult Encore program saw a 33 percent increase from the previous year in older adults’ enrollment (typically ages 50 and older). While the exact reason for this increase is not apparent, greater and easier access to online classes for, e.g., technologically connected homebound individuals, those who live in rural areas, as well as those who would not usually be able to attend due to time constraints (e.g., caregiving responsibilities) may have contributed to this growth.

The positive attitude of older adult learners toward online learning also became apparent in course evaluations, as well as in written testimonials. After attending a 15-week online course, two-thirds (64 percent) of the learners ages 55 and older rated their online learning experience as very effective. More than half of the respondents (57 percent) rated their confidence regarding digital technologies as very high.

However, the course evaluation also indicated a desire for in-person classroom connections, which became apparent in the finding that the majority of participants (57 percent) indicated that they generally prefer a hybrid approach of partially online and in-person classes. Only about a third (29 percent) liked to learn entirely online. Lastly, only 4 percent of the older adult students reported they preferred in-person only instruction, which highlights the fact that older adult learners want and need multiple options for learning. Here are some responses from the evaluations:

“Learning advanced technology is not a choice, it is a necessity,” said M, age 78.

“As we get older, we may not be able to be as independent as we once were for instance, driving, shopping, going to movies, theatre, seeing friends, but having online learning we will be able to continue being active and learning new ways to keep a healthy brain,” said F, age 81.

While these studies reveal the positive effects of online lifelong learning approaches, they do not include older adults who live in residential communities—most of which were isolated and locked down during the pandemic and often did not have the technological capabilities to connect to outside programs, as well as underserved communities where elders did not have the financial means or technology to participate in these programs.

As von Doetinchem and Livingston (2020) already wrote in their Generations Now post on the Digital Divide in Lifelong Learning, “it is the responsibility of our nation’s lifelong learning providers to ensure equitable access to the resources they provide.”

As social distancing requirements are likely to be in place for some time, educators must ensure learning opportunities for older adults remain accessible. As the ability to age in place while staying socially connected is increasingly reliant upon the ability to use modern technology, lifelong learning providers will need to find creative ways to provide the necessary training for older adults to participate in online learning.

The events of the past year and the resulting increased dependence upon online platforms for communication and education have shown that contrary to what was previously believed, older adults’ attitudes toward online learning are very positive. They are often more than willing to use these platforms to continue their pursuit of lifelong learning.

Maureen Feldman, MA, directs the Social Isolation Impact Project for the Motion Picture and Television Fund and is an adjunct professor at Los Angeles Pierce College, and an instructor for UC Davis’s Continuing and Professional Education, in Los Angeles. Linda Maurice, MA, is director, Community Education and Lifelong Learning at Nova Southeastern University in Hollywood, Fla. Sandra von Doetinchem, PhD, is department chair in Continuing and Professional Programs, at Outreach College, University of Hawaii at Manoa.