OLLI Needed Summer Session Students. Alumni Jumped at the Opportunity

Partnership between OLLI and Alumni Association is example of promoting lifelong learning

Kate Szerszen watches Alan Teasley’s online class about Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Dennis Szerszen.One of the success stories of remote learning at Duke this summer was the result of a new partnership that benefited two Duke programs: Duke’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute enrolled more students and Duke alumni got new learning adventures.

The partnership came out of the pandemic cancelling OLLI’s spring semester, requiring program leaders to quickly plan an unprecedented virtual summer session.

This was new ground for OLLI, which usually doesn’t have a summer session because many members are traveling. Unsure of student interest and having a larger capacity through virtual classes, the program sought an arrangement with the Duke Alumni Association.

When the special began on May 19, OLLI had enrolled more than 150 new alumni members.  It could stand as a model for fulfilling a core plank in President Vincent Price’s strategic plan to turn a Duke education into a lifelong learning experience.

“There are so many fantastic programs – lectures, panels, classes - hosted at Duke and by Duke offices that are open to alumni and part of the work of the Lifelong Learning team is to share those with our alumni,” said Jenn Chambers, Alumni Association assistant vice president for lifelong learning.

“Our alumni came to Duke to get a great education and we owe it to them to support that desire even after they graduate. The partnership with OLLI expands the education smorgasbord into new areas and allows alumni and others who are committed to continuing their education in our region the opportunity to connect on their like interests.”

Founded in 1977, OLLI is an organization where lifelong learners can enjoy daytime courses, and conversation with peers. The Duke program is among the largest of 124 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes programs on campuses across the country.

The four six-week summer offerings, $70 each and offered via Zoom on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are taught by some of OLLI’s most popular instructors. Total enrollment has hit 530, ranging from 88 members signed up for Mark Hall’s “Imprisoned” (about the criminal justice system) to 189 for “Lincoln & His America.” The other offerings: Alan Teasley’s “Rogers & Hammerstein Encore!” and Brand Fortner’s “Are We Home Alone in the Universe?”

Duke Alumni Affairs, in an email invitation to 6,200 alumni, highlighted the Lincoln course, taught by Duke’s well-loved professor and DAA board member Gerald Wilson, and his wife Virginia S. Wilson.

“We included alumni 50 years old and older and alumni who took a class with Gerald Wilson since 2000,” noted Jo Supernaw, director of academic engagement and lifelong learning at DAA.

During remote learning, a strong digital presence can help institutes punch above their weight. Prior to the curtailment, OLLI at Duke had been operating at its maximum enrollment capacity for more than five years.

OLLI member Howard Koslow watches the class on Stephen Sondheim. (Credit: Howard Koslow) Among the Duke alumni signed up for the summer term, at least 10 are current or former members of the DAA Board who live across the United States. They accepted an invitation to join OLLI and enroll in a course in exchange for providing valuable feedback weekly regarding how the program engages members in lifelong learning. “We wanted to be able to make adjustments and enhancements in real time if possible,” said OLLI director Chris McLeod, “and not wait until the end of the term to receive the feedback.”

Overall, the feedback from the board members has been positive. “One or two have alerted us to ways we can improve our moderation of questions.” McLeod said. “We are grateful for the feedback and to hear what is working well.”

“Our culture regularly discounts and dismisses the ability of older adults to use technology and I’m proud to say our members are willing to keep learning and have enthusiastically embraced Zoom,“ McLeod said.

Two OLLI volunteers, curriculum chair Beth Anderson and IT chair Howard Koslow played pivotal roles in preparing the membership and the OLLI staff to launch programming on Zoom in late March. Two staffers, Kathy Parrish and Betina Huntwork, also played critical roles in hosting Zoom meetings and scheduling and responding to members inquiries.

OLLI at Duke hopes to offer more than 50 virtual classes in the fall term and perhaps make its offerings available to other communities in North Carolina not served by an OLLI and to Duke alumni living in more rural communities around the country.

The OLLI online catalog will be posted in mid-August. For more details on courses and registration, visit www.learnmore.duke.edu/OLLI.