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Lifelong Learning Institute builds community and finds new opportunities online

March 1, 2021

In the fall of 2021, NIU’s Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) was one of the many programs that switched to an online meeting format to keep members safe during COVID. The LLI organizers were well aware of the risk the virus presented. They also knew that the chance to connect with peers and continue learning about a wide range of topics in an informal, non-competitive setting was too important to put on hold until the pandemic was over.

So the group added Zoom to their list of learning topics, and they put in the work to master the video communication platform and move the full catalog of LLI fall courses online. With six different study groups and lectures each week, the group Zoomed through the fall and winter terms, learning about topics such as election history and the adaptations that help animals survive in cold and snowy habitats.

While there was a bit of initial trepidation at the thought of transforming a successful in-person program to bring it online, the transition has been a resounding success.

In the winter LLI term, Pat Vary convened a course, “Survivors in the Cold,” which explored the habitats, survival skills and special anatomies that allow Arctic and Antarctic animals to survive and to thrive in extreme conditions.

“It’s been wonderful to have LLI continue to be part of our lives at a time when we’ve had to give up other things,” says LLI organizer and participant Elizabeth Bass. “It’s not only the intellectual stimulation but also being with friends, if only virtually.”

Fellow LLI organizer Carol Zar agrees, saying, “Participation in LLI has many benefits. It allows us to flex our intellectual muscles. It gives us a chance to interact with others who also have inquiring minds and want stimulating conversation. And it provides a social outlet both during this difficult COVID period but also during what we used to call normal times.”

Bass says, “The transition to Zoom has been smoother than I expected, in part because of our efforts, via videos, written instructions and practice sessions, to educate our members and conveners. Last summer, we had purely social gatherings that allowed members to practice their Zoom skills before our classes began.”

In fact, the transition to Zoom has brought with it a number of unexpected benefits and has extended the group’s geographical reach as folks participated from nine states ranging from the Atlantic to the Pacific – and one person even joined in from Portugal!

Bass says, “In our elections class in the fall, it really helped to have the reports and the perspectives of people in Texas, Florida and Indiana.”

She continues, “Another benefit has been the huge increase in our winter term enrollment. It’s usually our smallest term because people don’t like driving in the winter or because they are snowbirds. Now all such people can participate from their homes, wherever they are.”

The group hopes to continue offering online courses for at least part of the year (especially during the coldest winter months) even once the pandemic has become a thing of the past.

For twenty years, the Lifelong Learning Institute has created a community of people who love to learn. Many members have volunteered as “conveners,” who lead informal discussion sessions about subjects that interest them. And the group has also appreciated the lectures by experts, including NIU faculty.

“Over and over again, members have been impressed by the quality of their presentations and the depth of their knowledge, often on subjects with which our members have had little familiarity,” says Bass.

The LLI is ready to welcome new members to the group and wants potential members to know that everyone is welcome, regardless of level of education or background. The only requirements are curiosity and a willingness to continue learning at any age.

LLI member and organizer Patricia Vary sums up the group as all about “learning new things, seeing new and old friends, and being with people who still want to learn something new.” She continues, “LLI has expanded my horizons in many ways. COVID has challenged all of us to get familiar with Zoom, a new skill, and has gotten us out of our homes and together in a safe way. I think for a lot of us who have volunteered to be course conveners, we have learned so much digging into our subjects. It is good to be challenged to learn new areas and skills.”

The Lifelong Learning Institute is now accepting registration for the spring term. For just $25, participants may attend any and all programs throughout the spring term – from March 16 through May 6, 2021. Learn more and register at