Oct 23

Senior Learning: New Opportunities

by Dillon Kato

University programs help quench the thirst for knowledge well into the adult years.

Montanans who never quite grew out of the desire to keep learning and expanding their horizons have major programs at both the University of Montana and Montana State University to rekindle a passion for education.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UM, also known as MOLLI, is a program for adults age 50 and older who want to experience classes and participate and be involved at the University of Montana without being enrolled as a traditional student.

The MOLLI program, which began in 2006, offers classes during three different semesters: fall, winter and spring. This fall, the program featured 23 different courses, primarily taught by members of UM’s faculty. Unlike traditional classes, MOLLI courses are noncredit, and as such, don’t have tests or homework.

MOLLI is a member organization that only allows people aged 50 and older, and people interested in taking a class must pay an annual $20 fee. After that, each class costs $60, with a slight discount for taking multiple courses in a semester.

Each course lasts for six weeks, and meets once a week for an hour and half each time. Most of the classes take place on the UM campus, although alternate venues are used for courses that require specific facilities.

Hal Stearns is one of the instructors who has been teaching MOLLI courses almost since the start of the program.

Stearns’ MOLLI course is always about Montana history, and he finds it interesting to bring people together to reaffirm their keen love of the state. “I talk about the famous, about the infamous. About the things that if you live in Montana, you just should be aware of,” he said.

While Indian education is now a requirement in schools, Stearns said some adults might not understand the importance Native Americans played in our history. Or the importance of homesteaders, miners, ranchers and farmers.

Why did Marcus Daly, the copper king, have his horse farm in Hamilton? Why is the Battle of the Little Bighorn the most written about in American history? What changed from the original state constitution in 1889 to the rewrite approved in 1972? All of those are questions Stearns likes to answer for his MOLLI students. Because of the less formal setting, the class is free to discuss people, places or events students bring up.

“It can be free reign, it can often go in different directions. We don’t have to follow a marked syllabus, you can just bounce ideas back and forth,” he said.

Stearns earned his master’s in history and doctoral degree in education from UM, and spent many years as a history teacher at Missoula’s Sentinel High School, then in the graduate school at UM.

He said the biggest difference between teaching MOLLI classes and graduate students is the more relaxed atmosphere that comes from people being there just for the sake of learning.

“Graduate students sit on the edge of their seats, writing notes on everything you say so they can give it back to you on the test. Or they are detached because the class is something they have to take because it’s required for a degree,” he said.

With MOLLI students, every student is interested and attentive, because they chose that specific subject.

“A number of people who take my course are, for example, doctors or engineers, who maybe felt like they were shortchanged the first time in school because they had so many requirements they couldn’t take classes they wanted to enjoy,” Stearns said.

MOLLI classes are also a great way to become more involved with UM in other ways. A friend of Stearns’ had only come to campus for sporting events before taking a MOLLI course. “Now he’s here for presidential lectures or seminars or just to have coffee and talk to people,” Stearns said. “There’s a phrase MOLLI uses a lot. Curiosity never retires. I think it’s a perfect way to describe it.”

Roger Maclean, the dean of the School of Extended & Lifelong Learning, which facilitates the MOLLI program, said: “I see MOLLI as being about celebrating the pure love of learning, of taking classes without worrying about things like exams or assignments.”

MOLLI has seen record enrollment year after year, from around 200 its first semester to more than 700 this fall.

MOLLI is not the only program offered through the School of Extended & Lifelong Learning. For example, this fall, they also began offering a series of non-credit Professional Development programs. These courses, Maclean said, are aimed at post-baccalaureate professionals in the workforce who want to acquire new skills. They cover subjects like marketing and project management, or offer certifications in fields such as digital design. These classes provide no academic credit, and range from seminars lasting only a few days to up to six weeks, primarily taking place in the evening or
online.

“The reality is that you have people who have to work longer for a variety of reasons. People that may have lost jobs and when they came back have to do so at a lower skilled job, and might need to retrain to move back up to a job like what they were doing,” Maclean said.

More information on these courses can be found online at umt.edu/profdev. Information about MOLLI courses can be found online at umt.edu/ce/plus50.

Sally Maison is the founder of a similar continued education project in Bozeman at Montana State University, called Wonderlust. When Maison, a former psychologist with a Ph.D, moved to Bozeman in 2001, she brought with her a love of learning.

“I wanted to take classes, but I sure as hell didn’t want to write any more papers. I just wanted to learn things,” Maison said.

She quickly found a group of similar-minded people who were frustrated that there were no lifelong learning opportunities in the town. “I just decided, let’s get it started. We had a reception at the Museum of the Rockies. Two hundred people showed up. Obviously, this was a niche to be filled,” Maison

Enter Wonderlust. The main component of Wonderlust, like MOLLI, is a series of short, four- to eight-week courses taught primarily by MSU faculty. Originally, Wonderlust had three classes in the fall and spring semesters, This year, there will be six in each semester, with the plan to possibly expand to seven next year.

Maison, who previously served as the president of Wonderlust, is now the curriculum chair, charged with organizing classes and instructors for each of the semesters. As Wonderlust doesn’t repeat classes, that means a new slate each semester. She is still putting together the finishing details for the spring, which will do away with the fall courses on American presidents, Renaissance art or the mountains of the world in favor of Baroque music, World War I, and Chinese culture.

Unlike MOLLI, Wonderlust classes take place off campus, and in the afternoons between 2:30 and 4:30.

“While it’s not a hard rule, and anyone can take the classes, it is generally targeted toward retiree-aged people,” Maison said. “They told us parking on campus and night classes are two things that they don’t want to have to deal with, and we understand and respect that.”

Wonderlust also organizes book and opera clubs, and holds public monthly forums on topics of local interest. It also puts together short, one-hour classes called side trips, focused on specific topics.

The annual fee to join Wonderlust is $35, said Marilyn Jarvis, the assistant director of continuing education with MSU’s Extended University. Wonderlust is a sister program cosponsored in part by MSU, which manages the logistics and registration for the project. That fee provides a discount on the courses, as well as access to the side trips.

Information about Wonderlust can be found online at eu.montana.edu/wonderlust.

Jarvis said the program has proved to be very popular, starting fairly small and growing to as many as 350
students last year.

“People take part because they are interested in the topics, or just interested in learning something new. Some people take several of the courses each semester,” Jarvis said.

If someone does take a class from Wonderlust, they might even find Maison sitting at the desk next to them. “I take one or two of these classes every semester. I’ll tell you what, this whole thing is an entirely selfish enterprise for me to keep learning,” Maison joked.

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