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In its anniversary year, the Senior Citizens University of Zurich is writing history: Its members are taking part in live online lectures for the first time. Mike Martin, president of the Senior Citizens University and professor of gerontopsychology at UZH, is thrilled that the first digital lecture of the Fall Semester worked smoothly and was well received. “For a few participants it was the first time they had ever attended an online lecture and taken part in a digital discussion round.”
Like other parts of UZH, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the Senior Citizens University to take a digital leap. “We faced the task of working out how to offer an interesting program to our 2,600 or so members in the prevailing circumstances,” says Mike Martin. New forms of hosting events had to be developed quickly. The Senior Citizens University therefore enlisted the help of UZH start-up Old School, a company that develops digital learning platforms for over-65 year olds.
The young firm created a new online portal for the Senior Citizens University. Members can now access lectures directly through a personalized members’ area and have discussions with each other in forums. In the future it is hoped that background reading or audio podcasts will also be provided via the portal. A new feature will be added during this semester: Members can themselves form groups with others on specific topics and meet online to discuss the topic. “Our idea is that this will become established as an educational platform for older people,” says Mike Martin. “We are looking forward to hearing our members’ ideas.”
In comparison to the Senior Citizens University’s early years, in which it was mainly about experts sharing their knowledge, nowadays there is much more focus on active participation: “We are developing the Senior Citizens University together with our members,” says Mike Martin. For example, for the last three years there has been a working group to define areas in which the program should be further developed.
A current project that arose from this working group is a study called Community-Based Cognitive-Affective Capacity Building 65+. Members of the Senior Citizens University have co-developed this intervention study and are also working on it. The aim of the study, which is organized together with the Senior Citizens University of Geneva, is to tackle risks that have increased for older people as a result of the pandemic, such as isolation, reduced mobility or limited opportunities to learn new things. Now around 150 members of the Senior Citizens University of Zurich have received training and are making daily targeted phone calls to other over-65s. The focus is on personal contact, but in addition they also perform cognitive training. Thanks to the very active participation of members, they were able to set up the study in only five months. “It’s important for us to show that over-65s can also adeptly do such tasks. In addition, our members can be active ambassadors for education and reach other people over the age of 65 who want to learn,” explains Mike Martin.
An increasingly important skill that senior citizens need to develop is evaluating research, says Mike Martin. A lot of information about research findings is openly available nowadays. The amount of information is increasing incredibly quickly and it is getting more and more important to be able to assess what should be taken seriously. “The ability to assess the quality and relevance of research in order to make well-informed decisions is something that all of us at every age need to be able to do,” believes Mike Martin. “We therefore want to give our members the skills they need to evaluate research findings.” In the Fall Semester, Mike Martin will for the first time offer an interdisciplinary seminar in which participants will critically reflect on the content of lectures that have been given. In the future, the Senior Citizens University wants to offer more special events in which interested seniors can get to grips with specific research questions, concepts, theories and methods.
One thing that won’t be changing is the academic lectures – they continue to be the preferred format of the Senior Citizens University of Zurich. “They offer an accessible way to connect with the university and give insight into the whole range of subjects,” says Mike Martin. On the other hand, the themes covered in the lectures has changed: Where previously, medical topics were popular, today subjects such as migration, language evolution, bitcoin and machine learning are favored. “The educational interests of over-65s are very diverse.”