Osher makes summer splash with online pivot

June 26, 2020

Lifelong learners reconnect through weekly online lectures, meetings and so much more during pandemic

osher

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University was just days into its spring semester when the pandemic closed classes for lifelong learners who are 50+. Like so many TU organizations and outreaches, Osher organizers steered their focus to reaching members through distance learning online.

Within a week, Osher leaders began reconnecting members through a weekly newsletter that included member images and stories along with useful resources. Traditionally, Osher's vibrant community thrives with the academic programming along with cultural and social programs for people. Academic courses are taught by subject matter experts, and current and retired educators—many TU faculty.

Becoming a member of The Osher Lifelong Institute allows for  participation in classes, lectures, book clubs, and other interest groups and a weekly newsletter. Membership runs from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021.

Tracy Jacobs, Osher's director, shared some insights into Osher's past, present and future.

TU: What are the designed changes that are happening with Osher?

As everyone was social distancing, we wanted to make sure that we continued to engage with our members. In addition to offering intellectually stimulating programs for our members, we also are a community where people see friends, participate in book clubs, and interest groups, so it was important to us to keep in touch with everyone. Because our members are in a high-risk group for COVID-19, we wanted to do our part to enable them to stay in place while continuing to learn and grow. In addition to a weekly e-newsletter, we also had terrific instructors volunteer to give special online lectures for our community.
 
TU: How did the transition evolve?

Although we have been talking about the possibility of incorporating distance learning in our program in the future, we didn’t expect that we would need to take our entire program online until the pandemic shut everything down. Because we had just started the semester, we decided that we would try to shift the entire schedule to the fall semester as much as possible. We were hoping that the courses would happen in-person but we were busy planning for online classes just in case.
 
What does the pivot mean going for Osher going forward?

We’re thankful that we are in a community of lifelong learners who are open to trying online classes even if they are initially intimidated by the technology. Many of our members appreciated the asynchronous online lectures that we have had through the spring. Next up, we’ll be offering a series of lectures through our Zoom into Summer program. This lecture series will be free to those who are renewing their membership for the 2020-2021 year. It’s also providing us a chance to offer lectures in a synchronous environment. In the fall, we have decided to keep everyone safe and to offer our fall semester online. We will be announcing the fall schedule in a few weeks. This pivot to online learning has meant that staff, students, and instructors are all challenging ourselves to get out of our comfort zones in order to make the best of the situation. I think some will find that they really enjoy online learning. While we are eager to get back to face-to-face classes, it opens the door for us to be creative and to offer online programming in the future as well.

ZOOM INTO SUMMER

Join Zoom Into Summer every Tuesday and Thursday at 10 a.m. unless otherwise noted, June 30–August 13. Explore a wide range of topics in 14 lectures. Nearly all will be delivered live with time for Q&A. A few will be pre-recorded with complementary ancillary materials to enhance your experience. View complete schedule.

TU: How will it be noticed by Osher members?

Osher members will notice that we are doing our best to adapt to the circumstances at hand. At the same time, I hope that they also appreciate how much they have had to adapt. We don’t think that online learning takes the place of in-person learning but we hope that it is enjoyable nonetheless. This fall, we will have our semester online and we hope that everyone is patient with us, with the instructors, and with their peers because it’s a new endeavor for most of us. Some of our book clubs and special interest groups have been holding their regular meetings over the past few months. While it might not have been everyone’s first choice, they have really made the online meetings work. We all can’t wait to be together again, but in the meantime, it’s great that our folks don’t have to worry about traffic or parking. It’s nice to be able to offer quality program that our members can enjoy in the comfort of their own homes.  

How has COVID-19 impacted what has been done and how are communications handled differently?

Prior to March, we had been sending out quarterly e-newsletters. We started sending weekly newsletters shortly after our stay at home orders were given. These newsletters were intended to be a way for members to get important information from us, resources that we think they may enjoy, and a chance to see what their fellow Osher folks have been doing lately.

We released a series of free online lectures each Thursday through the newsletter. We are happy to have our members share these lectures with friends. Our summer lecture series will be open to members only and is included in their membership fee when they renew for 2020-2021. While we are still accepting membership renewals by mail, we have been encouraging everyone to renew online. We’ve publicized our membership renewal and our summer series through the newsletter and through specially designed emails that have been sent to members.
 
What impact has Osher made in its history?

Osher at Towson University started out in 1999 as the Auburn Society. Over the years, mostly through word of mouth, the Osher program has grown both in the number of members and the amount of programming. This time in history is very difficult for everyone but we want to remain a constant in the lives of our members. We have heard from so many how important the Osher program is to them. We definitely don’t want to lose that even as we embark on the brave new world of online learning in the near future.  When we return to the classroom setting, I think that there will be new norms in how we have group activities—at least for a while. We’re very fortunate to have the technology that is available to us in order to adapt to a changing world, but the goal will always be to have in-person classes once again be part of our lives.

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland, BTU-Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore and Diverse and Inclusive Campus.