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Back to School? The Benefits of Learning Online

two students learning online

There has never been an easier time to go back to school. Why? Because so many of our institutions offer online learning!

We’ve known for years—both intuitively and through research—that lifelong learning supports brain health, keeps people connected, and increases happiness. Even 100 years ago or so (date uncertain), a famous industrialist recognized the value of lifelong learning in saying,

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”—Henry Ford

Fast forward to the Age of the Internet—and particularly the Age of COVID-19, when virtual meetings have become the norm—and we find more opportunities for lifelong learning than ever before. I want to share some of the benefits of online learning that I care about—and you may think of more:

  • Safety: While COVID-19 and its variants continue to spread, it’s great to have a safe way to connect with others from the safety of your own home.
  • Variety: Online learning can take many forms. You can learn to play a musical instrument, learn a new language, study quantum physics—seriously, the options are endless.
  • Quality: Whether your instructor works for your local parks department or is a tenured university professor, access to quality online learning opportunities has never been greater.
  • Flexibility: Some online learning is scheduled at specific times but many opportunities are available 24/7, meeting the needs of your busy schedule.
  • Cost: Affordability is a big concern for most people. Many casual learning opportunities are available to you at no cost. At the other end of the spectrum, university degree programs still require tuition and books but your travel, clothing, and food costs are greatly reduced if you attend online classes.
  • Connections: If you can commit to a regular online meeting time, you may find and engage with kindred spirits—people who share your interests.

Online learning tailored for older adults

Whether you take an occasional class for personal enrichment, or join a book club; learn a new language or sign up for a short course to learn another new skill; or pursue a certificate or diploma, online learning options tailored for older people abound:

  • AgeWise Live (Age Friendly Seattle virtual events) provides participants with opportunities to learn from local movers and shakers, including community members featured on Close to Home: Stories of Health, Tech & Resilience and City of Seattle leaders featured on Civic Coffee Hours. Programs are auto-captioned in multiple languages and recordings are posted later on YouTube.
  • AgeWise TV (Seattle Channel) offers hour-long captioned videos that feature the arts, exercise, interviews, and documentaries, also available on YouTube.
  • King County Library System and The Seattle Public Library offer a wealth of free online resources for people aged 50 and older, including e-books, streamed movies, technology training, and special events. Look for online learning—often free of charge when you access classes through the library system. Hint: Get a library card if you don’t have one already.
  • Lifelong Recreation Program (Seattle Parks and Recreation) list online learning and virtual activities for “people aged 50 or better” in their seasonal catalogs, including fitness, healthy aging, and arts programs (registration usually required) as well as YouTube videos (available anytime).
  • Momentia is a coalition of local organizations that offer in-person and virtual programs for people living with memory loss and their caregivers, including videos of music, dance, and theatre experiences; art and poetry; at-home fitness workouts; museums, parks, travel, zoos, and more.
  • Northwest Center for Creative Aging “advocates for the creativity, vitality, and wholeness inherent in all of us.” The center’s website provides a portal to other local organizations’ listings of in-person and virtual events and learning opportunities.
  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at University of Washington (OLLI-UW) offers “a range of programs for intellectually curious adults over the age of 50,” often taught by current and retired UW faculty. Currently, all courses and events are offered remotely via Zoom. OLLI-UW collects an annual membership fee ($35) that allows you to register for a range of thought-provoking courses (for an additional $30–$50 fee), special events, free lunchtime talks, and study groups.
  • RoadScholar (an organization my parents knew as ElderHostel) normally focuses on travel adventures for older people. The nonprofit organization now offers 2–5 day online experiences via Zoom, and they’re a lot less expensive than going in person..
  • SilverKite Community Arts offers virtual intergenerational arts workshops, talks, social hours, and performances. Look for classes with free registration through the King County Library System and The Seattle Public Library.
  • Washington State Aging Network Learning Channel is a new program currently piloted by Area Agencies on Aging in Washington state. Enjoy online classes on a wide variety of topics like art history, assisted technology, books, computer apps, cooking, dance, meditation, QiGong, stress management, travel, and yoga. Use a code (WASHINGTON) while signing up to waive fees for paid classes, thanks to sponsorship by the DSHS Aging and Long-Term Support Administration.

Online continuing ed at public institutions

  • Community and technical colleges throughout Washington state—including Bellevue, Cascadia, Green River, Highline, North Seattle, Seattle Central, and South Seattle colleges in King County—offer degree programs as well as non-credit continuing education classes, some tailored for older adults. Look for e-learning classes.
  • UW Online lists online degree programs, certificate programs, and single classes offered by the University of Washington.

A note about tuition waivers for older Washingtonians

Residents aged 60 or older who register for classes at state-funded colleges and universities should inquire about tuition waivers. Typically, the waiver covers up to two state-funded classes per quarter (on a credit or audit basis). Certain requirements apply, and there’s a $5 processing fee charged for each class. Learn more at RCW 28B.15.540.

Digital access—where to turn for help

If you know someone who would benefit from online learning but doesn’t have Internet access, following are several ways you can help them get connected:

  • Computers: InterConnection is a local nonprofit organization that refurbishes computers, laptops, and other equipment and makes technology available at a very low cost to low-income individuals locally and around the world.
  • Set Up: If you’re helping someone set up a computer and run into problems, you can probably find an answer by watching a YouTube video (google your problem—YouTube videos are usually at the top of the list).
  • HotSpots: Both The Seattle Public Library and King County Library System have programs for individuals who lack other ways of getting online—hotspot devices and free wi-fi locations. Hotspot devices provide a wireless connection to the Internet. 
  • Training: For years, we’ve heard rave reviews for the basic training available on GCFlearnfree.org, a free service provided by the Goodwill Community Foundation that makes it easy for older people to find computer classes. The site offers more than 200 free online computer classes, including workplace computer skills, e-mail, Internet, social media, graphic design, and more. And if you prefer in-person training, a good place to inquire is your nearest senior center. And you can always refer back to the list of online learning opportunities in this article—many offer technology training!

So … go online, learn, and enjoy!


Irene StewartContributor Irene Stewart manages communications for Aging and Disability Services and edits AgeWise King County on behalf of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services.

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