Online OLLI program shows adaptability, expands its reach

Jerilyn Logue was thrust into a situation participants in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Iowa State (OLLI) usually find themselves in. Last March, the OLLI director had to move classes online in a short amount of time in response to the pandemic.

"We found out about a week or so before classes were set to begin that the university was going to be closing to in-person instruction," Logue said. "In a matter of two days, we decided to go with Zoom."

OLLI is for people at least 50 years old who want to continue learning on a range of topics without the pressure of tests or grades. For Logue, the pressure was on, with 46 classes and multiple daytrips already scheduled and little knowledge about delivering online classes.

"I went to the internet and looked things up, but I had the extra benefit of being an OLLI, which means we have a resource center," she said. "I went to some training sessions that were great. A lot of it was trial and error and keeping it as simple as possible."

Not all classes were conducive to moving online, but a majority of instructors -- who are volunteers -- put in the effort to make online instruction possible. Logue did test runs with each instructor, allowing them to learn the ins and outs of the online environment before classes began.

Twenty-two classes were offered online last spring, and while the total number of participants is down during the pandemic, the number of classes they are taking is up, Logue said. The current spring session offers 43 classes.

"These are people who have a passion for learning, and they couldn't go this long without learning on a wide variety of topics," she said. 

Tackling technology

Learning online has its challenges for OLLI participants, but Logue preaches patience with yourself, classmates and instructors since proficiency comes with practice.

"I tell instructors it is OK if it doesn't work right away," she said. "Our biggest obstacle is bandwidth and internet speed because it is different for everyone."

Participants can log on to their computers or dial into classes using their phone in a conference call setup.

Instructors have learned to innovate, with one teaching a class on how to operate an iPad by sharing his iPad and iPhone on the screen so participants can easily follow lessons.

Classes, which range in length from one day to eight weeks, are recorded and available for those who miss one.

Logue said many participants have adjusted well to the move online and learned to troubleshoot issues. With the switch online, participants receive instruction on internet and learning-from-home etiquette.  


Classes will remain online through at least next winter. The four-week winter session will be exclusively online going forward to avoid participants traveling to campus during inclement weather. Logue said she would consider "pop-up classes" in the fall to allow participants to meet face to face.

Class subjects change each session and often deal with timely issues. The spring session includes courses on racism, human trafficking and speaking civilly to those with different political views. 

Expanded reach

OLLI was almost exclusively an on-campus program at the ISU Alumni Center until the pandemic forced changes. But with struggles come advantages, like being able to offer courses to participants across the nation.

"We have always had people who have lived in Marshalltown, Webster City, Boone, Des Moines and Newton who would drive up, but now we have people in different states and different cities and counties in Iowa taking classes," Logue said.

OLLI also gives participants the chance to interact with others during a time when they may have limited ventures outside the home.

Regardless of when in-person instruction resumes -- something some participants are eager for -- online offerings will continue.

"We will never be able to do away with online because we have too many people now all over the country," Logue said. "We sent out an email to all alumni 50-plus making them aware of this opportunity, and it is a great way to connect with them."

In fact, one participant from Ohio enjoyed a class so much in the fall, he is teaching this spring.