It is in many ways an educational match made in heaven: seniors and continuing education programs.
“Post-secondary institutions have traditionally focused on young adults who are seeking undergraduate and graduate degrees,” said Jo-Anne Clarke, dean of continuing studies at the University of Victoria (UVic). “While this is still a primary demographic for universities, the concept of lifelong learning means that continuing education units are now offering programs for learners across the age spectrum.”
The numbers back this up. “We recently completed a survey of students and discovered that 84 per cent of our community learners are 50-plus and 53 per cent are over 65.”
This figure means about 21 per cent of total enrolments in UVic’s continuing education programs come from seniors. (Total enrolment is about 17,000 with the remaining enrolments coming from international students, as well as professionals).
“Keep in mind that each of these 3,500 [enrolments] is not a different person,” said Clarke. “In fact, many seniors take multiple courses throughout the year and often get to know one another this way. It’s safe to say that we have about 1,500 individuals taking classes in a given year.”
As a group, seniors taking classes through UVic are well-educated (90 per cent have already completed some form of post-secondary education) and predominantly female (73 per cent), said Clarke.
As the number of seniors increases, Clarke expects their share to rise. “Our community programming has definitely grown over the past few years, which is largely due to a growing senior population who want to keep learning,” she said.
A recent arrival from Calgary, where the share of seniors taking classes was much lower, Clark said the vibrancy of Victoria’s senior community continually impresses and inspires her.
“Victoria has a very positive attitude towards aging that other cities could learn from,” she said.
As for seniors, they see continuing education as a way to stay sharp and engaged.
“There is a growing body of research that leads directly to the benefits of continuous learning for seniors, from fending off loneliness by providing regular social interaction to ensuring cognitive strength building,” said Janice Hanna, director of continuing education at Camosun College.
The emergence of continuing (adult) education as a phenomenon distinct from secondary and post-secondary education has coincided with the emergence of the knowledge-economy in the 1960s and 1970s, according to scholars like Peter Jarvis.
“Vocational education was now no longer something that occurred at the start of a career, but something that continued throughout the whole of the working life,” he writes in Learning in Later Life: An Introduction for Educators and Careers.
In short, this period of economic transition popularized, even necessitated the idea of lifelong learning, and seniors who take continuing education courses today very much live out this philosophy of life-long learning. Clarke sees this first hand at UVic.
“Our records showed that 85 people had taken 75-100 courses with us over the years, 54 had taken 101-200 courses, and two people have actually taken over 500,” she said. This trend also shows up in the age of students, who take multiple classes.
“When we look at our statistics over time, there is definite growth in [senior-aged students] who are taking multiple classes. Our oldest student will turn 96 in April.”
Seniors, of course, have different learning needs than younger cohorts. Clarke said UVic offers flexible schedules.
“Many of the courses or workshops that appeal to seniors are offered during the day or on the weekend,” she said. “Our building expansion has allowed us to offer more programs in one central location which is close to transit and several parking lots.”
UVic also holds classes off-campus in Victoria’s downtown library, local senior centres and Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre.
“This is something I can see growing as a means to reach seniors who want to access education closer to home or who have mobility challenges,” she said.
As for programs, seniors who take continuing education classes through UVic have shown interest in contemporary issues, history, health, music, language and art, said Clarke.
“Another program that appeals to seniors is our Travel Tours,” she said. “Learners who sign up for these tours are predominantly seniors who enjoy travelling, learning and visiting sites that may not usually be available to the average tourist. These tours are led by academic guides and usually include a few classes before the trip. It’s an inspiring and safe way to see the world.”
Hanna generally agrees. “Anecdotally, the leisure programs tend to draw in many seniors,” she said. “Photography is a very popular program given the beauty that surrounds us.”
Seniors have also been eager to learn with other age cohorts. “Intergenerational learning and story telling are also becoming a popular way for seniors to engage with each other and younger generations,” said Hanna. “Autobiographical writing is also quite popular.”
Both Clarke and Hanna concur that seniors have and will continue to leave their mark on the education system as their numbers grow. “It’s fair to say that ‘non traditional’ students (like seniors) have changed continuing education,” said Hanna.
“Although I think we do a really good job of providing an array of interesting workshops, we’ve been talking a lot about the need for more programming that deals specifically with issues relevant to seniors,” said Clarke. “There are some obvious program areas like health that we can expand on but it would be interesting to explore some emerging trends like tiny houses, mindfulness and creative mastery.”