"Older people sometimes think, 'What am I doing trying to learn something new at this age?'" Elliott says. "But I was looking to keep my mind active, and I liked the companionship of others in the class."
Elliott, who went back to school and got a bachelor's degree in psychology at 39 and then a master's in social work at 44, is the kind of person that people mean when they use the phrase lifelong learner. And she's not alone in an American Association of Retired Persons study published in July, 9 of 10 adults ages 50 and over said they wanted to actively seek out learning opportunities to keep current, grow personally and enjoy the simple pleasure of mastering something new. "We're increasingly becoming aware that learning is a prescription for a longer, healthier life," says Constance Swank, director of research at A.A.R.P. And while the old-fashioned ways of learning something new reading a book or taking a class at a local college are still popular, many older adults are embracing a new way of going to school: doing it online.
"The stereotype of Grandma and Grandpa going to the community center to take a basket-weaving class doesn't stand up," says Ann Kirschner, CEO of an online- education company called Fathom, which is set to launch this fall. "What people over 50 are looking for is expertise and social interaction, as well as convenience and cost. The Internet delivers that like no other medium can."
Online education includes everything from learning a foreign language to mastering investing to creating a Web page. Courses can be free or cost up to several thousand dollars. Students typically log on from a home computer to receive lecture notes, suggested readings and critiques of their work, and to turn in assignments and participate in a chat-room or message-board discussion. More and more classes are being offered in real-time streaming media, meaning that students log on at a designated time and can see their instructor in live video on their computer.
Online education draws most of its revenue from employer-sponsored training, but the industry is increasingly looking to the attractive demographic of baby boomers and seniors now the fastest-growing Internet population. That group grew 18.4% in 1999, according to research firm Media Metrix. And it's not composed of casual users: adults 50 and over actually spend 6.3 more days per month logged on the Net than do 18-to-24-year-olds.
Fathom is a for-profit online partnership of Columbia University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History and other institutions, and will offer online classes taught by prominent academics. The site launches this fall. CEO Kirschner envisions a scenario in which older adults will use Fathom courses to indulge lifelong passions and reinvent themselves for new careers. "It's as if, all of a sudden, everybody lives on a college campus," she says. "So many retirement communities are built near college campuses for just this reason. Now anyone, anywhere will be able to take courses from the top person in a field."
Kirschner offers a hypothetical example of a retired bank executive who is transitioning to a position as a development officer at a local college. The retired executive "would be interested in a seminar that helps her keep tabs on the world of international finance, her life's career, and a course that helps her understand new trends in philanthropy, her new job," Kirschner says. "Or she might have always been interested in art history, and now she can take a course on art history with a world-renowned scholar at Columbia."
Exposure to a named academic expert is atypical in the anonymous world of online schooling, however. Instead, users benefit from what cyber-instructor Margie Davis calls the "faceless intimacy of the Internet." Some of Davis' online writing courses, offered through America Online and her own website, writingtoheal.com, require students to tackle tough subjects in reflective personal essays. The six-week offerings have weighty names like Writing for Caregivers and Writing About Cancer. Says Davis: "My students don't know me personally. They feel very safe. They have an audience that isn't threatening or competitive."
Even in courses that don't deal with personal issues, the Internet can be more welcoming than a traditional classroom, says Mary Furlong, the founder and chairman of ThirdAge Media, an Internet company for an audience of people in their 40s and 50s. "At a certain point you're not sure you belong sitting at a desk in a junior college with a bunch of 22-year-olds," she says. "Online, if you have gray hair, no one notices. Size doesn't matter. Humor matters. Intelligence matters." ThirdAge offers free courses on subjects like learning to invest, finding love online and living with arthritis.
The wealth of courses available at sites like ThirdAge.com and many others can make choosing a course in the first place a lesson in navigating the Net. As yet, there is no site that offers a comprehensive catalog of all courses available online, but there are sites that help aggregate information on a broad range. Acadio.com is a site geared primarily toward those looking for career training and retraining. It collects courses and self-study products like books and software from more than 200 different continuing-education providers, including Berlitz, the Harvard Business School Press and the Lightbulb Press, publisher of The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money and Investing. Acadio also provides customer reviews. And within the next six months the site will introduce a function that allows a prospective student to take a five-minute sample of select interactive courses.
The first step in choosing an online course, says Fathom's Kirschner, is picking a topic you're likely to stick with. "Though you're taking it from your home on your terms, an online course requires some level of commitment," she notes. "Start with something that is your greatest delight." Once you know what you want to study, Kirschner suggests, find a teacher with some expertise, not just anyone who puts up a website and offers to read your poetry. You'll find that the more substantive the course, the more likely you'll pay. Often a free class will be offered effectively on a fun topic like finding love online or a one-shot seminar like learning to test your cholesterol. But for a longer-term course on a serious subject, expect to pay $30 to $200 for a class for personal enrichment, like writing personal essays or improving your golf swing, and up to a few thousand dollars for a degree-granting class.
Online writing teacher Davis advises prospective students to look for clues about the instructor before signing up. "Take a good hard look at the course description. If it's poorly written, the course may be poorly organized. E-mail the instructor. She should get back to you promptly and be approachable." Also, find out in advance if the course takes full advantage of the Internet medium, says Acadio CEO Steve Sperry, and make sure you're equipped to take full advantage too. "Online courses have gone beyond slapping up a Web page and exchanging e-mail," Sperry says. "Now we can broadcast live lectures over streaming media. It's like a real classroom environment. But it's not going to be satisfying on a 28K modem." Once you've enrolled in a course, getting the most out of it isn't rocket science, says instructor Davis. "Just do the work. If you paid only $30 for it and if no one's going to notice if you don't show up, it's easy to lose your motivation after the first couple of weeks," Davis says. "But stick with it, and you may really surprise yourself with how meaningful it can be."
Two and a half years after she took that first online course in improving her Web skills, Brenda Andradzki Elliott is still finding meaning in the subject and the medium. She's teaching her own online class on alternative medicine at ThirdAge.com.