While some Delaware seniors spent much of their time during the coronavirus lockdowns binge-streaming television shows, others enjoyed another type of bingeing—exercising their brains by participating in online adult education classes.
And they are lining up for more.
“We offered about 300 in-person classes before the pandemic,” says Jennifer Merrill, manager of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Delaware’s Wilmington campus. “But now that’s grown to 317 online classes, and we had 1,400 students enroll for the spring semester in the first two days of registration.”
Because COVID-19 is especially dangerous for older folks, many of whom have underlying medical conditions, it was especially important to avoid group activities and venues where social distancing was difficult. As a result, online learning became a haven for intellectual and social activities.
“I received a lot of messages during the lockdown from people who told me that OLLI was a lifeline that helped them keep their sanity,” Merrill says. In addition to the Wilmington location, the school also has facilities downstate in Bridgeville, Lewes, Ocean View and Dover.
Basic annual membership is $75, plus an additional $25 for a five-week virtual class and $50 for an 11-week course. For a student body of mostly 50-plus students who weren’t familiar with Zoom, OLLI offered free tutorials to bring them up to speed. Another attraction is that all OLLI teachers are volunteers and thus especially enthusiastic about their subjects.
Also seeing a new wave of students this winter was Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, which offers conservation, art and wellness classes to “mostly people over 60 who are local and well-educated,” says Duncan Himmelman, Mt. Cuba’s education manager. Although some ongoing classes are held in small groups or outdoors, virtual classes became necessary when the pandemic struck.
“We will have 40 online classes and 50 in-person classes this April through September,” Himmelman says. Most cost around $29 but can be as high as $200, depending on the subject. “Anything that has to do with native plants and how to use them is very popular,” he says. “The use of native ferns is also a popular topic, as is anything to do with hummingbirds.”
At OLLI, history and political discourse are hot topics, Merrill says. “There’s also a lot of interest in health and wellness.” And, as Merrill found out, combining history and the arts is a sure winner. “One free online session we offered was Hamilton: The Man and the Music, which attracted more than 200 people.”
One student was a Milltown Village resident Joanna Papa, who gave a succinct review of teacher Dan Pritchett’s performance: “Dan conducted excellent classes, providing the historical background of our government’s founding,” she says, “as brought to life through the music and lyrics of Hamilton.”