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Lifelong Learning Virtual Experience: The Next Best Thing to Being at the Center

October 01, 2020

by Alan Blitz

A few months into the pandemic it was time for a change in my daily routine. Sheltering in place, while necessary, was getting to me as I suspect it was for many of you. I was ready to try something new and a recent email reminded me to register for a virtual Lifelong Learning class.  

The next week I was connected via Zoom with more than 250 North Shore Senior Center (NSSC) learners participating in the session “15 Greatest President Decisions,” presented by Gary Midkiff. On a personal note, my clicking on the Zoom link to join the presentation turned out to be a great decision. But why? 

I asked Mary Staackmann, Director of Lifelong Learning, to explain what makes the virtual session experience meaningful to learners. “When participating in a class,” Mary explained, “you feel connected to the instructor and participants, much more so than just watching a recording of a presentation. It's live, and the instructor will respond to questions in real time.”

Mary added that there are different ways to interact, “whether we have people type questions and comments in ‘Chat’ and the moderator reads them to the instructor, or we have participants ‘Raise their Hand’ and the moderator will unmute participants to ask their questions or participate in the discussion.” 

It turns out thousands of Center members and others have found the virtual learning experience the next best thing to being in the seminar room. The first few weeks, many of the virtual classes were attended by the maximum of 300 participants. 

Mary pointed out that “our overall enrollment for the summer term was greater than it had been in past summers when classes were all in person at the Center. We also attracted many new people. We were the first organization of our type, including other senior centers, libraries, and other community organizations, to offer their classes online once the stay-at-home order began, and we attracted many new people looking for things to do at that time.”

NSSC Virtual Learners Discover Multiple Benefits 

Kiki Richman and her husband, Bob, found accessing online sessions was just one more challenge during the pandemic. “I had never done a Zoom session, but it turned out to be very orderly . . . a 1-2-3 step process,” Kiki said. “The Lifelong Learning staff was incredibly helpful with their telephone support to assist me in accessing the Zoom system,” she added. 

While she misses being at the Center, there is a different intimacy with virtual learning. “I always thought you had to be there in the lecture room, but you get up close and personal with the instructor with Zoom.  “You can see the instructors’ faces and non-verbal and verbal communications in how they get across their information, unlike when you’re sitting in the back of the auditorium,” Kiki explained. 

“The faculty becomes familiar to you,” she continued. “Turns out I watched a webinar on Zoom and actually liked the speaker more on Zoom versus live in person.” Through the online experience “I was also able to meet instructors as well as interesting new educational topics,” she added. 

Patrick Krohn started with a negative attitude toward virtual learning. “I was dragging my feet but was encouraged by my wife and granddaughters. I do feel like I’ve ‘broken the technology barrier’ in accessing Zoom sessions.”

While he misses the feeling of being in the classroom, there have been additional benefits to Zoom classes. It has encouraged Patrick to learn how to use his computer for email. “It is like learning a new language, one step at a time,” he explained. “I’m still listening and learning from others. I also got a Fitbit for tracking my steps, so I’m moving along with the benefits of using technology in my life.”

Patrick remains passionate about taking his in-person NSSC mask to mask art classes on Tuesdays. “I would not sit at home doing art alone, so the mask to mask experience is fine to be among friends,” he said. 

Through engaging on virtual learning and visiting the Center (as well as walking eight blocks every day and seeing neighbors), “it keeps me sleeping soundly at night,” Patrick said. 

NSSC Staff Adaptability Encourages Learners 

Anne Essex had no reluctance at all in participating in Zoom virtual learning. “I not only had confidence in the moderator, I was amazed at how rapidly the NSSC staff had adapted to the COVID-19 rules of engagement society now requires,” she explained. 

The basic rules of participation were simple. “I had to learn to navigate prompts to open and unmute. Other participants clued me in before it was necessary to call the office,” Anne said. “Using an iPad or laptop computer can quickly determine the setting, and as for personal appearance, Zoom dress rules apply only above the waist . . . wearing shorts and sandals is fine.”

“Virtual online exercise classes have made it possible for me to maintain a healthy routine, since I felt my presence in the gym not advisable at this time. I believe there were 21 participants when I joined the online exercise provided by the Fitness Center.”

Anne feels fortunate to be in a group (art and sculpture classes which can meet safely) that allows the social interaction with others not available with remote contact. She advised: “Try it. It is amazing how simple it is to join in with a discussion, interchange opinions and offer suggestions.”

The Instructor’s Viewpoint

Jeff Mishur is an art historian who has taught online at the university level for 20 years. As a virtual and live seminar instructor, he finds several advantages to virtual presentations. With high-resolution images, “I can hone in on image details for the student. This makes the student experience even better than in person,” Jeff pointed out. 

“I think the sound quality is also better, which is important for the hearing impaired,” he added. “I've found that I get more questions and interactions via Zoom then I do in person. I think this is because everyone feels comfortable typing a question, even those who might be shy or might have been socially conditioned to not speak up.”

Jeff observed, “Virtual programming will also be ideal for snowbirds or those who move out of state but still want to support and be connected to North Shore Senior Center.”

Ready to Zoom? 

As of now, during the pandemic, Mary said that most of the Lifelong Learning programming will be virtual through Zoom. “Hopefully, soon, we'll be able to offer programming in person at the Center, but we will continue online programming as well. “

NSSC Staff Ready to Help You Zoom

The Lifelong Learning staff, primarily Paul Carpenter, is available Mondays through Fridays by phone (847.784.6030) or email (LifelongLearning@nssc.org) to help anyone who requests it. This fall term the Lifelong Learning team is offering a class on-site called “How to Zoom” to provide in-person instruction on how to take part in online Zoom classes. 

Click here to get started on your virtual learning experience and register for the November 16th “How to Zoom” class today!