You’re never too old to learn, and in the U.S. it actually gets easier as you enter your autumn years. Financially, anyway. Every state in the union has a university or community college that offers senior citizens free or heavily discounted access to its courses.
That’s a generous offer for a nation whose population of people aged 65 and older is set to more than double over the next 35 years, from 40 million to 89 million. Given there are currently around 20 million students enrolled in colleges across the country at the moment, enrollment day in the year 2050 could have a decidedly gray tinge.
I’m not seriously suggesting teens will one day be outnumbered by their grandparents on our university campuses. But we are on the verge of having the largest population of retirees in the country’s history and, as we’ve never been healthier or wealthier, that will mean a spike in those free course placements.
How do institutions cope with those added numbers? Video conferencing.
Education for Senior Citizens via Video Conference
A potential increase in the number of seniors attending higher education courses brings with it problems around access to lectures and lessons. An aging population is also an increasingly immobile one. Sadly, 13% of Americans aged 65 and older cannot walk more than a quarter of a mile due to physical impairment. For those aged 75 and above the figure dramatically increases to almost 30%.
That makes getting around a university campus–perhaps even getting to one in the first place–a major obstacle to taking advanced classes late in life. In a digital age, however, the solution the problem of both more students and more physically restricted students is to have them attend classes virtually.
Many universities currently offer video recordings of their lectures online for student download, but the dynamics of the all-important tutorial and additional study group lesson are lost within a broadcast-style presentation. Instead, we need a live video conference arrangement that lets seniors pose their questions and participate in real-time discussion.
The Virtual Classroom for Seniors
Video conferencing has already opened up a whole new network of interactions within the curriculums of our elementary and high schools. Connections between remote students and their schoolroom classmates, connections between schools, and connections with off-site experts are now common.
Those same principles can be easily transferred to a university setting to create a new link between the institution and a private home or learning center. The technology is readily available. The off-site senior student needs only an affordable web cam–and affordable now encompasses HD quality cams–and access to an online video calling platform. The teacher inside the tutorial room needs a similar setup, with the possible additional of a second camera or computer so they can simultaneously stream themselves and the students in the classroom.
If the classroom uses a video conferencing system that can carry multiple callers, be it an enterprise grade paid service or a free one like Skype, each remote student can dial in to the same group call and keep everything within a single screen.
Making the Most of a Free Education
The remote video link does ask the teacher or lecturer to split their attention between the students in front of them and those online. Thankfully group video calling means there’s only a single screen to focus on, and it may best to project that image onto a larger display, with a standard HDMI cable, so that the screen can fill the room and be easily seen by students in the classroom, as well as the teacher.
The remote students can, of course, participate in the class from wherever is most convenient, be it at home, at a local senior center, a private room within a public library, or even within a care facility.
The bottom line is that video conferencing can help our aging population stay mentally and socially engaged, and help them continue to contribute to the wider world, including through spirited debate with the generations following them. It may eventually be that every public college and university will one day have dedicated video calling facilities to accommodate an aging student body.