This article is part of our new series, Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are transforming our lives.
Deb Livingston, a former business consultant, was always curious and eager to learn just about anything.
“When the pandemic hit, I was confined at home and found myself diving into online exploration,” said Ms. Livingston, 61. She discovered GetSetUp, an interactive website that delivers virtual education to older adults.
Even former chief executives like Jeff Mihm, a Miami resident who led Noven Pharmaceuticals, sometimes need a new life direction.
After resigning from his corporate post, Mr. Mihm, 55, decided to go back to school — virtually, because of the pandemic — and enrolled in the University of Texas’s Tower Fellows program in September. “I have a love of learning, and it was an opportunity to step back, study and explore,” he said.
The internet has empowered adult learners by providing new online tools to ramp up education and training. “The need for workers to keep pace with fast-moving economic, cultural and technological changes, combined with longer careers, will add up to great swaths of adults who need to learn more than generations past — and faster than ever,” said Luke Yoquinto, a research associate at the M.I.T. AgeLab and co-author of “Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn.”
By 2034, the number of adults age 65 and older will outnumber those under the age of 18, according to the Census Bureau. “That growth of older age demographics will translate to new demand for enrichment in the form of digital education,” Mr. Yoquinto said. “I would say that, for both good and ill, older demographics are going to serve as a proving ground for learning technologies in the coming years.”
Adult education, however, is “the Wild West” of education technology, according to Mr. Yoquinto. There are many outlets experimenting with ways to get a handle on the online adult education marketplace, including community colleges and universities, for-profit learning platforms, workshop providers and nonprofit organizations.
The new platforms are also opening doors to more adults. “There are already tons of people who, once upon a time, by dint of age or circumstance, wouldn’t traditionally have gotten the chance to partake in education, but can now sign up for free online courses,” Mr. Yoquinto said. Participants can choose a class here and there, without strapping on a backpack and heading to campus or signing up for expensive degree programs.
Virtual learning has become “the great equalizer,” said Gene O’Neill, the chief executive of the North American Veterinary Community, which provides continuing education for veterinarians around the world. “Because of virtual learning, veterinary professionals everywhere, even in remote, undeveloped countries, can learn from the world’s most renowned leaders and virtually participate in conferences,” he said. “This puts learning on an equal platform for everyone regardless of geography, income or time constraints.”
Ms. Livingston’s goal was to improve her skills so she could become a paid teacher on the GetSetUp platform, which offers classes — all taught via Zoom by teachers older than 50 — on skills from professional development to technology, health, wellness and hobbies like photography. There’s even a new class about registering for a Covid-19 vaccine, given the difficulties many people have faced. There are three membership levels, starting at free and topping out at $20 a month for unlimited access.
“The nature of work is changing,” said Neil Dsouza, GetSetUp’s chief executive and co-founder. “The traditional way of designing training and reskilling is a long, drawn-out program where you get a certificate or a degree. By the time you get that certificate, the skill is already outdated. We’re changing that model.”
Ms. Livingston, who lives in York, Pa., signed up to learn how to use Zoom to host classes, how to manage and lead an online class and how to teach Google Classrooms. “Seniors everywhere were in lockdown and were eager to learn and connect,” she said.
Because she’s interested in cooking and eating healthy meals, Ms. Livingston eventually began teaching classes such as “Great Dinners in 30 Minutes or Less,” “Healthy Eating on a Budget” and “Healthy Desserts That Are Delicious, Too.”
In January, Oasis, a nonprofit educational organization, launched Oasis Everywhere, with a menu of online classes on subjects from art to writing. Senior Planet, a unit of Older Adults Technology Services, or OATS, is a nonprofit resource for people 60 and older that offers courses and lectures.
OATS was founded in 2004 in New York City as a community-based project for older adults focused on tech education. Since then, it has expanded to over 200 locations in five states, serving urban and rural communities. But last year it was forced to pivot in response to the pandemic. “We taught hundreds of in-person classes before the virus forced the closure of Senior Planet locations in March,” said Tom Kamber, the founder and executive director.
That’s when his team pulled together and, within weeks, launched a fully digital set of courses and programs that have rapidly expanded its reach to its primary audience — a global community of anyone 60 and older.
Beyond Senior Planet, OATS launched Aging Connected, which aims to get one million older adults online. It provides tablets, along with training and technical support, to 10,000 older residents of New York City Housing Authority communities.
“I really wanted to create a program that would be able to get older adults to use technology and give them the kinds of training and support in environments where they could succeed,” Mr. Kamber said.
While older adults are continuing to learn new skills, they also are starting new businesses. In 2019, research from the Kauffman Foundation, a nonpartisan group supporting entrepreneurship, found that more than 25 percent of new entrepreneurs were ages 55 to 64, up from about 15 percent in 1996.
Online courses are riding that start-up wave. GetSetUp, for example, offers courses on running an e-commerce marketplace, starting a business from home and building a website.
Other offerings for entrepreneurs include Blissen, a three-month virtual boot camp for entrepreneurs over 50, and the AARP Foundation’s Work for Yourself @50+, which offers free webinars and workshops.
But all these online opportunities are not possible without access to the internet. “While there’s a rising passion for knowledge, people are getting excluded from the educational process in this country because they’re not online,” Mr. Kamber said. Based on a research report OATS recently released in partnership with the Humana Foundation, nearly 22 million Americans over the age of 65 lack broadband access at home.
“The good news, though, is the level of sophistication of online education is increasing and more access is coming to rural communities,” Mr. Kamber said. “It’s a brave new world of learning for people, and that gives me hope.”
For Ms. Livingston, that means continuing to take and teach classes at GetSetUp.
“Learning at any stage of life is what stimulates creativity and joy,” she said. “So much energy emerges from connecting the dots, having ‘aha’ moments and gaining skills. I love that I can help others keep their zest for life and help myself in the process.”
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