While Americans use the term Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI), our neighbors around the world call their centers University of the Third Age (U3A). U3A’s have been around since 1973 and started in France where they were primarily associated with universities and the collegiate academic model. When the U3A model moved to Great Britain in the 1980’s, it started to look more like how most LLIs are operated in the US with a volunteer facilitating system and less of an emphasis on grades and tests. Members life experiences were used to form the basis of classes where both the facilitator and students could learn in tandem from one another.
Today, U3As exist independently around the world from Argentina to China, and some centers have even ventured into starting to put parts of classes online. There are at least two U3As who offer online courses: Great Britain and Austrailia. I recently spoke with Di Delchau, a representative from U3A online in Austrailia, to find out more about their program.
Alex Finnarn: What’s the history of U3A online?
Di Delchau: U3A Online was started by three people, Jack McDonnell, Dorothy Braxton and Rick Swindell, in 1998. They received a grant from the Federal Government in1999, which was the year of the Older Person, which allowed the project to proceed. It was established as a substitute for a regular face to face U3A for Isolated people — those who were unable to attend a regular U3A because of geographics, being incapacitated or being a carer or some other reason that they were unable to attend. They started with only a couple of courses that were converted to online courses but had been written and presented at regular U3As by the writers. Until July last year people used to just register on the site and then pay per course they undertook with special concessions for those people who were truely isolated or those already enrolled in other U3As that wanted to also do an online course. Last year we established a membership system.
AF: Is the popularity growing, stable, decreasing?
DD: Since moving to a full membership system last year we have been able to get a better picture of real support and our membership is growing very rapidly. At the end of November last year it was in the vicinity of 800 members and today it is over 1400. Any older people, from anywhere in the world, can become a member and can then have access to all the courses, as Independent Study, without further cost throughout their membership period. Membership is only $A25/yr. Isolated people are still supported by this system but it is also open to any older people and handicapped people of any age are also encouraged to take part.
AF: How do you keep the social nature of classes from diminishing?
DD: People are able, at times, to do the courses online with a Course Leader and when participating in this was they are encouraged to use the Discussion Forum to communicate with, not only the Course Leader, but also the other people in the course. We also have a Members’ Area where there are some social forums that the members can participate in —- this is member driven so we put up whatever forum is requested. We monitor this area to avoid any abuse but so far there has not been any. It is only available to members who have to login to it so we don’t anticipate any problems.
U3A Online has never (and never will) sought to replace regular U3As — the value they have in the social aspect cannot be replicated online. It was developed to allow at least some aspect of regular U3As to be available to people who otherwise would have nothing. Now that we are so well established and we now have a volunteer who is extremely competent at getting the courses online in a very short time, our range of courses has rapidly grown and we now offer 37 courses with others currently being written (all courses are written by retired experts or are courses that members of regular U3As have been offering in their U3A and are happy to have converted for use online).
If you want to find out more about U3A Online or even try out a class, you can go to their website to learn more.
– submitted by Alex Finnarn