“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
A lonely podium faces empty chairs in the Oak Room. A projection screen is pulled down but is white and projects nothing. This once lively learning setting has been reduced to silence and emptiness. The 2020 spring semester was the first time in 16 years that the Institute for Learning in Retirement would not be meeting.
But hope still echoed in participants' hearts as they waited for updates, and a dedicated committee collaborated as to how the program would move forward.
The Institute for Learning in Retirement, or ILR, is more than a catalog of classes to keep retirees busy. For 16 years, it has been a place where community and academia come together to perpetuate curiosity and satiate an ongoing thirst for knowledge. With intriguing topics and dedicated presenters, ILR brings continued learning to the 55+, north central Florida community at large. From Visual Arts of Asia to Brain Matters to 2020 Nobel Prize Winners, topics range various subject areas and focus on academia. Each semester is six weeks long, with classes offered Monday through Friday and the best part: no homework and no exams, attendance is not required, and the cost of tuition each semester is nominal and free during the summer semester.
A committee consisting of volunteers from both Oak Hammock and the Gainesville community oversees and organizes the program and scouts out the teaching talent from the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, and the local professional sphere. The ILR board is dedicated to nurturing the exploration for continued knowledge.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, enrolled Oak Hammock residents and participants from the greater Gainesville area attended classes in-person at Oak Hammock, in the Oak Room or other smaller classrooms.
Participants looked forward to the classes and often lingered after to socialize and discuss with one another the respective topic.
However, at the start of the 2020 spring semester, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the program to pause until further notice. For the first time in history, ILR classes would not be held as scheduled. The news was immediately sent out to presenters and participants to stay tuned for updates, but the ILR committee knew they had to do something.
Once it was evident that the shutdown would carry on into the summer and beyond, the committee developed a plan. Like similar collegiate programs, ILR adopted an online learning environment, and participants attended classes through Zoom. The ILR committee had to quickly learn how to navigate the new software and held tutorials and training sessions to help everyone transition.
The summer semester determined whether the new platform would be a sustainable solution to carry on while meeting quarantine guidelines. The committee was uncertain about how attendees would like the new online environment, but as it turned out, they loved it! With everyone in quarantine at home, the online ILR courses were a welcome source of engagement with peers. Enrollment stayed strong and participants were even logging on from outside the Gainesville city limits. In light of the pandemic, many new science courses have been offered, including one about how COVID-19 has affected policy and commerce.
Today, the ILR program is shifting from online to a hybrid environment. New technology has been purchased to accommodate the changes, and webcams have been installed in the conference rooms and oak room. Online classes are still available to be viewed live from home on ZOOM and recordings of the classes are available for viewing on the ILR YouTube channel. Participants are welcome to attend presentation viewings in-person, too.
The chairs in the Oak Room are no longer empty, just placed further apart. And the projection screen shines brightly, often showing a gallery of faces viewing from cyberspace.
Moving forward, the ILR board of directors is excited to introduce new summer programs and is seeking strong and effective hybrid presenters for the fall semester. The committee is ready to have the community come back together, both in-person and online, as they continue to improve and adapt.