'Lifelong learning' offered online

The Baltimore Sun

For some, continuing education classes represent the chance to take that watercolor class, explore interior decorating or get to know Microsoft Excel.

But among the traditional offerings, Carroll Community College - and other Maryland schools - is providing lifelong learners with additional skills, using the advantages of the Internet. How to be funny. Assertive. A better communicator.

Under the broad umbrella of "personal development," the courses have cropped up at colleges across the country - and their niche nature seems to make them perfect for the online classroom format.

"What we're finding here at Carroll is that there is a significantly increased interest in the classes that are more for personal enjoyment, personal enrichment, aimed at quality of life as opposed to work life," said Sally Long, senior director of lifelong learning and program support systems at the college. "We have noticed, too, a significant increase in the number of people participating in the online classes."

From 2005 to 2006, Long said, the number of students enrolled for noncredit online classes rose by about a third.

Education To Go, a California-based company that together with about 1,500 schools nationwide provides about 300 online courses, vice president Jerry Weissberg said. Thirty percent to 40 percent of those enrolled are in "pure personal enrichment classes," he said.

The company, whose six-week classes are available through the community college, works with independent contractors, usually people who have been published or have teaching credentials, Weissberg said.

Several of the personal-development instructors are former college professors or have worked in their field.

For Joanna Sandsmark, who developed a "Get Funny!" class, the online sessions allow her to share the often-elusive recipes for comedy.

"Most people think that humor can't be taught," said Sandsmark, who wrote for the television series Weird Science. She aims to prove that the opposite is true, teaching her students ways to find humor in life. "Humor is so healing, and it's so necessary for us," she said.

Sandsmark said her students include those who have struggled to make people laugh or just want to lighten up, and columnists and stand-up comedians seeking to improve their repertoire.

Instructor Judy Snyder, who teaches "Achieving Success with Difficult People," encounters students from beyond the usual business arena in her classes.

"It's a real variety," Snyder said, including educators, people in criminal justice and, more recently, students tackling difficulties in churches.

Sandsmark, Snyder and others say that being online isn't an impediment when it comes to getting the concepts across and practicing them.

A different, "motivated" learner enters the online classroom of Laurel Bragstad Schaub, who teaches a course on interpersonal communication.

"They're not there because mom and dad said they have to take this class," said Schaub, who taught college communication courses for years. "They know what they want, and they're ready to go after it. ... They're ready to spend the time that they need on their own."

The reasons for the increasing interest in such online classes vary. Time, and the flexibility of the Internet could be a factor for students with a packed schedule. For others, the privacy and anonymity of the Web appeals.

"There are certain topics that people might prefer to take online and get their information that way, more quietly and discreetly," Long said, noting such subjects as debt elimination. "A lot of times, people might not want to be in a class with other people on that topic."

There might be a broader phenomenon at work, Long and Weissberg said.

"I think that people are retiring earlier and so they have time to do this," Long said. "We have all these baby boomers whose kids have now left home. ... Now they have time to do something for themselves. They're no longer shuttling kids to soccer practice, or maybe they're no longer paying college tuition."

About 30 percent of Ed2Go's students - more than 30,000 - are older than 55, Weissberg said.

"As the boomers are retiring or starting to retire ... there's a very large population that is maybe seeking a second career, but more likely just lifelong learning," Weissberg said.

Or maybe the explanation is simpler. "I think people are just looking for something, for fun," Long said.


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