Pandemic Learning: Paving the Way for a New Lifelong Learning Direction

“Lifelong learning is based on the principle that learning is a continuous process that occurs from the cradle to the grave. ... Lifelong learning ... stimulates and empowers individuals to acquire and apply skills and abilities required to realise their full potential” (University of South Africa). This definition emphasizes that humans learn over their entire lifespan and that ongoing learning benefits the individual. Numerous studies have confirmed that lifelong learning contributes to cognitive, physical and social well-being.

Lifelong learning happens in various contexts, including formal, non-formal and informal settings. The majority of organized education for older adults occurs in the context of non-formal learning, which describes educational activities that do not lead to a degree or credential. Such activities for mature learners can include educational travel or courses offered at higher education institutions or cultural centers, and more.

Traditionally, lifelong learning providers offered educational opportunities in person, but with COVID-19, most institutions were forced to rethink delivery modes. But how do older adult learners like and experience those new types of course delivery?

Older Adults Can Smoothly Make the Switch to Online Learning

Research conducted before the pandemic suggested that mature adults choose in-person over online instruction and that small group settings, which allow time for discussion and active class participation, are preferred.

However, with the onset of the pandemic, in-person instruction was not possible. Rather than cutting older adults off from educational programs, many lifelong learning programs continued to function remotely.

At the Nova Southeastern University (NSU) Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI), the in-person pre-pandemic program thrived with daily lectures and programs. Members met for coffee or lunch, celebrated birthdays and went on field trips. The LLI was vibrant, socially and educationally.

When the program shut its doors in March 2020, it immediately pivoted to an online program. Using student volunteers, members were offered Zoom training, either in groups or, if needed, via telephone. As a result, the NSU LLI lost only one day of scheduled classes before beginning daily live or recorded Zoom lectures.

A collaborative research study revealed that the online transition was successful.

A spring 2020 collaborative research study between the NSU Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine, Department of Public Health, and the LLI revealed that the online transition was successful. The study found that more than 80 percent of surveyed LLI members thought the online program had decreased their feelings of isolation and improved their quality of life during the pandemic.

By October 2020, the LLI returned to a full eight lectures a week, Zoom program with additional socializing options, including coffee chats, social hours and peer-led groups. While missing their peers face-to-face, the LLI membership expressed gratitude for having such a robust, interactive online program. Plans are underway to return the NSU LLI to the physical classroom in Fall 2021 in a hybrid manner to allow for greater flexibility for all members.

The above research demonstrates that older adults embrace technology and online learning. However, a 2020 study conducted by the Humana Foundation in conjunction with OATS reveals nearly 22 million Americans still have no wireline broadband, and 27 percent of older adults don’t use the internet. Out of those who do, only a quarter felt confident going online. As lifelong learning professionals develop programs for older adults to learn online skills, improving technology access for all ages and communities remains imperative.  

Solving for Inequities in Phone-based and Other Learning Platforms

Millions of older adults are at risk of suffering negative side effects of social isolation and loneliness and are unable to access digital educational or social opportunities. As society works toward improving access and adaptability, community-based and nonprofit organizations can still reach the most vulnerable populations by incorporating non-digital methods such as telephone-based outreach programs.

Given that 97 percent of Americans own a landline or cell phone, educational and service providers can leverage the universality of this basic form of communication, providing social connectivity and learning opportunities during the pandemic and beyond.

Even before the pandemic, many community and cultural institutions partnered with telephone-based services such as the Motion Picture & Television Fund's Daily Call Sheet, Mather Telephone Topics and Covia’s Well Connected, as vehicles for remote socialization and lifelong learning.

Such services have broad appeal among older adults and prove especially popular with socially isolated individuals and people with disabilities, who face a multitude of barriers accessing physical locations. The ironic twist during the pandemic is that everyone faced enhanced isolation and barriers to access, akin to what many older and disabled people already endured.

‘Who was best served by our prior “normal” and who was at a disadvantage with in-person learning?’

Despite the ubiquity of the telephone, it is not a universally accessible platform. Phone-based programs remain less accessible to older adults with hearing loss or those who rely on face-to-face visual cues, such as those who are on the autism spectrum or living with dementia. Furthermore, the intersection of cognitive disability and systemic racial injustice heightens the inaccessibility of online lifelong learning for disabled older adults of color.

Some arts and Alzheimer’s organizations, such as La BROCHA, the Arts for Brain Health Coalition and GoldMind Arts and Aging, opted to forgo a pivot to an online platform in favor of producing and delivering printed therapeutic arts care packages to their audiences. While such “boxed” solutions cannot supplant the benefits of in-person interactions with professional instructors, they are an efficient and accessible solution in our current, imperfect, cultural situation.

The profound shift to remote learning and engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether on- or offline, has brought up questions such as, “When will things return to normal?” and “Is remote learning as good as in-person?” These questions, however, betray undercurrents of bias and ableism.

Who was best served by our prior “normal” and who was at a disadvantage with in-person learning? Our new lifelong learning normal must offer levels of flexibility and equity for those who were disadvantaged by prior models. A hybridized remote/in-person approach, for example, would be most equitable if it allowed for flexibility of platform choice by the participant, so as not to disadvantage anyone in our audience moving forward.

Lucas Livingston, MA, has worked for 20 years in arts, aging and accessibility at the Art Institute of Chicago. 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. 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.