In early 1998, after she lost her husband of 38 years to leukemia, Brenda Andradzki Elliott found a way to start a new life. She went online and began making friends and learning. Elliott, now 58, would plug in at 3 a.m., when she couldn't sleep, and take an online course in a subject that had interested her for some time, navigating the Web.
"Older people sometimes think, 'What am I doing trying to learn something new at this age?'" Elliott says. "But I was looking to keep my mind active, and I liked the companionship of others in the class."
Elliott, who went back to school and got a bachelor's degree in psychology at 39 and then a master's in social work at 44, is the kind of person that people mean when they use the phrase lifelong learner. And she's not alone--in an American Association of Retired Persons study published in July, 9 of 10 adults ages 50 and over said they wanted to actively seek out learning opportunities to keep current, grow personally and enjoy the simple pleasure of mastering something new. "We're increasingly becoming aware that learning is a prescription for a longer, healthier life," says Constance Swank, director of research at A.A.R.P. And while the old-fashioned ways of learning something new--reading a book or taking a class at a local college--are still popular, many older adults are embracing a new way of going to school: doing it online.
"The stereotype of Grandma and Grandpa going to the community center to take a basket-weaving class doesn't stand up," says Ann Kirschner, CEO of an online-education company called Fathom, which is set to launch this fall. "What people over 50 are looking for is expertise and social interaction, as well as convenience and cost. The Internet delivers that like no other medium can."
Online education includes everything from learning a foreign language to mastering investing to creating a Web page. Courses can be free or cost up to several thousand dollars. Students typically log on from a home computer to receive lecture notes, suggested readings and critiques of their work, and to turn in assignments and participate in a chat-room or message-board discussion. More and more classes are being offered in real-time streaming media, meaning that students log on at a designated time and can see their instructor in live video on their computer.
Online education draws most of its revenue from employer-sponsored training, but the industry is increasingly looking to the attractive demographic of baby boomers and seniors--now the fastest-growing Internet population. That group grew 18.4% in 1999, according to research firm Media Metrix. And it's not composed of casual users: adults 50 and over actually spend 6.3 more days per month logged on the Net than do 18-to-24-year-olds.