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OLLI seeks spring term instructors

For Susan Stitham teaching is an exercise in surfing the energy of a room. He skepticism about how such a give-and-take environment would be replicated online has been “counterbalanced” by some surprising positives in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University’s new online course offerings, she said.

Stitham serves as co-chair of the OLLI SOU Curriculum Committee.

OLLI has opened the submission period for spring term course proposals, due by Dec. 31. The spring term runs March 29, 2021,-June 4, 2021. Information about joining the volunteer faculty or attending a class is available at inside.sou.edu/olli.

The local chapter is one of more than 120 OLLI sites in the U.S. and provides courses generally for adults 55 and older, but any adult interested in a class can sign up. OLLI SOU offers double to triple the number of classes averaged at other locations online today depending on the season, Stitham said.

Winter courses beginning in early January include 73 options, from slant poetry to Roman history to best hiking tips for seniors. Open registration begins Monday, Dec. 14.

As OLLI virtual course offerings transform both the teaching and learning experience for seniors, “the rich content, face-to-face human connections and tech support of the OLLI program is helping to ferry this demographic — both instructors and their students — to acceptance of and proficiency in the technology realm,” said Anne Bellegia, Chair of the Ashland Senior Advisory Committee.

Successful adoption of a new technology requires motivation, training and repeated use, which can be bolstered with a variety of OLLI courses, she said. The technology skills offered through the program are applicable to other elements of life today, from telemedicine appointments to Zoom dates with grandchildren, she added.

Prior to the pandemic, about 14 fall courses were offered. Southern Oregon’s “reservoir” of life experiences has made the local OLLI platform robust and successful, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Stitham said. Hands-on art courses are consistently popular among students and always sought in course proposals.

Three categories of instructors form the OLLI teaching experience: former school teachers, retired university professors and “enthusiasts” — people who have acquired expertise in a subject out of passion and interest.

“I teach a class on history almost every term, but I am no historian,” said Stitham, a retired high school teacher of more than 40 years. “We get to teach what we love and what we want to share.”

Member satisfaction is a top priority for the Curriculum Committee. By eliciting student feedback in recent years, Stitham found students describe a great OLLI class as one with an enthusiastic, organized and knowledgeable teacher. The committee has worked to ensure proposals are thorough and course descriptions explain the student experience as closely as possible, she said.

New-to-OLLI instructors work with a Curriculum Committee liaison through an online orientation session to understand their student audience, the appropriate scope of an OLLI class and now, how to do it all online.

“We have scientifically-based classes on health, but we don’t have health classes that say, ‘eat peanut butter and you won’t get cancer,’” Stitham said.

Making the shift to 100% online on short notice was a challenge for volunteer faculty and students alike, starting with a March lockdown weeks away from the first day of a spring 2020 term with 109 classes planned for in person, according to Bellegia. About 30 instructors persevered on their own with online courses in the spring, while more than 100 course proposals came through for the fall term once OLLI rolled out Zoom teaching training and support

Some students come to class more for the interpersonal connections than the material alone — something instructors have attempted to replicate with post-class Zoom hangouts for example, Stitham said.

In the last round of her class, Stitham got to know new students better seeing them face to face on the same screen, rather than layered behind each other in a large classroom. Students often appreciate seeing faces rather than the backs of heads and can hear more clearly on their own device, she said. Some classes offer unlimited attendance online.

Stitham expects if in-person courses are allowed again in the future, OLLI will continue to offer a selection of online classes to reach house-bound seniors and people across a broader geographic area. One of her former students signed up for an OLLI SOU class from Alaska and a sister joined from Maine.

OLLI provides Zoom accounts for volunteer faculty through SOU for the term to use for teaching and tech assistants are available. About 10 volunteers have offered to be Zoom mentors for those who need extra help setting up their online lessons, Stitham said.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Jerry Sonnenschein gives a presentation to an OLLI group in 2012. (Ashland Tidings File Photo)