Encore Learning Gives New Meaning to ‘Senior Class’ at Mason’s Arlington Campus
Posted: January 10, 2014 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: January 13, 2014 at 6:40 am
By Buzz McClain
The instructors include professors and the provost of George Mason University, as well as experienced professionals, ambassadors emeriti and ambitious graduate students. The courses are academically rigorous, ranging from law and public affairs to science and technology to the fine arts and history.
Tuition, actually a membership fee, is $55 a year, plus $45 for each course. Weekly class sessions run from 90 minutes to two hours for four to 10 weeks within a semester.
Sound good? There’s just one catch: Students must be 50 and over.
Encore Learning, formerly called the Arlington Learning in Retirement Institute, is not your afternoon post-retirement macramé class. The college-level noncredit courses taught at Founders Hall at George Mason’s Arlington Campus, among other locations, have the stimulation and intensity of traditional college courses, but without the tests, grades, papers or prerequisites. And no early morning or after-dark classes.
The affiliated nonprofit program began in 2002 and now has 800 members taking 30 courses each fall and spring from as many instructors, all of them volunteers.
“We give them the opportunity to teach people who have lots of life experience and education and who are deeply interested in learning,” says executive director Marjorie Varner. At Encore Learning, the teachers often learn from the students who may have had careers in the topic at hand.
From the beginning the decision was made to teach college-level courses, Varner says, “in seven areas that you would find in a university environment. We’re not trying to compete with adult education classes teaching computer maintenance or conversational Italian. There are wonderful county programs that do that, along with physical fitness and career training.”
But without final exams, research papers and the incentive of grades, where’s the fun?
“The fun is in the people,” says Varner. “They come because they want to learn.”
“I really enjoy teaching in the Encore Learning program; excellent students from interesting backgrounds,” says Mason provost Peter Stearns, who is also a history professor. “We have very active discussions from which I learn a lot. It’s just a pleasure to work with people who like to continue to learn.”
“While most of our students join Encore Learning for the academic courses, there are members who join just to take advantage of our special events, as well as our nine clubs,” says program administrator Donna Banks.
“Encore Learning offers two or three special events each month, all year round, and most of those fill up. Our lectures held in conjunction with the Arlington Central Library are often standing-room-only.” A typical member, she adds, “takes at least one course each semester, attends multiple special events and actively participates in one of our clubs.”
A small number of graduate students add teaching at Encore Learning to their busy scholastic agendas for the experience. “They’re learning from this much older population that they’re teaching,” says Encore Learning president and founding member John Sprott, a former professor of economics and a former ambassador to Swaziland. “They’re getting feedback that is valuable for them, and they can practice their pedagogies. This is their teaching opportunity; it provides them with an experience they can put on a resume. And they can say they taught a hard group of students.”
Indeed, an Encore Learning classroom can be a tough place to impress a student.
“I tell a story of a science course that was taught by a group from the Mason science faculty,” recalls Sprott. “In the classroom as students were three PhD astrophysicists. These people were not only academically prepared but had operated in that environment during their careers. The discussion that took place was at a level that the rest of us could understand, but the discussion was much fuller, more practical and insightful.”
Encore Learning announced its new name at their 10th anniversary celebration in conjunction with a redesigned website and logo. Sprott says, “When we started, our members were probably in their mid- to late-70s. Now our membership skews down into the 60s. We kept our original members with our successful program and are now attracting a younger, wider audience with our updated message.”
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