Learn by Doing

School of Professional & Continuing Education (SPCE)

One of the advantages of living in the digital age is that modern technology enables us to remain connected with friends and loved ones from afar. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, these digital connections have become increasingly important, especially for seniors and those living alone. Daily online interaction can help maintain good mental health and combat social isolation. Technology also affords many other advantages, such as the ability to take a virtual trip, attend an online lecture, or meet with a doctor through telemedicine, all from the comfort and safety of home.

The problem? Getting started with new technology can seem overwhelming, especially for those who have less familiarity with digital tools. That was the challenge presented to the JMU Lifelong Learning Institute, a program of Professional & Continuing Education (PCE) providing life-enriching intellectual, cultural, and social experiences for area adults.

Understanding the harmful effects that could result from extended social isolation and loneliness, the Institute needed a plan to help adult students get and remain connected. This plan also needed to protect the health of this vulnerable population by reducing the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

With the support of advisory board members, the program immediately began training participants in the use of Zoom videoconferencing software. Instructors received additional training on the use of presentation tools, online teaching strategies, and meeting security. Volunteers also made wellness calls to members without email addresses.

More than 250 people received training through the summer, ahead of the program's first fully online semester. These efforts paid off: more than 300 enrollments were received for online courses offered this fall.

To broaden access beyond paid programs, the Institute also began hosting free public lectures. A few of these programs have enjoyed live audiences of more than 150 participants.

Program director, Rodney Wolfenbarger, said he's impressed with the enthusiasm and commitment from everyone involved in this transition.

"It's exciting to see participants embracing new technology, developing new digital skills, and learning their way forward. I applaud them for the way they are navigating this new normal and finding their way through this brave new world of virtual learning," Wolfenbarger said.

In addition to providing social supports and access to continued education, the training program has produced some unexpected benefits. Members report using their new skills to remain engaged with volunteer organizations, participate in faith communities, and connect with family.

Wolfenbarger reports that the biggest hurdles are related to technological access: not everyone has the necessary equipment or the convenience and privilege of a reliable internet connection.

However, some participants report accessibility improvements, including the ability to use a personal headset to establish a direct connection to instructor audio or attend presentations on their own schedules.

Case in point, Lisa Johnson, who serves as a caregiver to two elderly parents and her son, who is living with quadriplegia. When her son's telehealth meeting prioritized computer access, Lisa was happy to learn that her parents could access the recorded presentation on-demand at their leisure. The presentation, focused on Mennonites in the Valley, was especially relevant to Lisa's family, which descends from John Rhodes, a Swiss Mennonite minister who was among the first settlers in the Shenandoah Valley.

"Technology can be scary," Wolfenbarger says, "but it also provides the tools we so desperately need now to continue to convene and connect."

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Published: Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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