Building on Its Initial Success, Beacon Hill Seminars to Expand Virtual-Learning

With Beacon Hill Seminars just wrapping up its first virtual education program, the nonprofit comprising self-described “life-learners” is looking to build on this initial success, and has just finalized an expanded curriculum for the spring.

BHS will kick off 2021 with a webinar on Wednesday, Jan. 6, when Bill Sherdan, president of the group’s board of directors and a Beacon Hill resident, will introduce the 18 instructors who will each be teaching one of the spring semester’s 18 courses. The instructors will also be allotted two minutes to personally introduce themselves and describe their respective courses.

Like offerings from your typical liberal-arts college, BHS’s upcoming courses, which begin in early February, will fall into five distinct categories, including Art and Architecture (e.g. “Islamic Architecture and Its Legacy to the West,” “Titian’s Allegorical and Mythological Paintings: Venetian Poesie” and “Michelangelo: The Misconstrued Titan”); Film and Music (e.g. “Classics of Soviet Cinema” and “Fred Astaire, His Partner and Others”); Literature and Classics (e.g. “Return of the Woolf,” which focuses on the works of the acclaimed English author Virginia Wolf ); History (e.g. “The Three Alices: Alice James, Alice Roosevelt and Alice Paul”); Social Science (e.g. “50 Years of Affirmative Action: Remedy for Oppression or Reverse Discrimination”); and Science and Math (e.g. “Science in the News,” “Unveiling the Cosmos” and “Copenhagen and Quantum Reality”).

While many were skeptical when BHS introduced its virtual pilot program in April – just one month after they were forced to halt in-person learning due to the pandemic – the three online courses initially offered via Zoom attracted around 90 BHS members, which, Sherdan said, while being significantly less than the 220 members expected to attend in the classroom, was still enough to reaffirm the move to virtual learning as a worthwhile pursuit.

Encouraged but cautious, BHS was conservative in planning its fall curriculum and expected that the 15 courses it was offering virtually would draw around 150 members, Sherdan said, but those expectations were surpassed when 175 members signed up instead.

BHS was also reassured when the “virtual kickoff” it held in September attracted around 100 viewers, Sherdan said, with around 60 of them going on to view recordings of its online classes.

But one of the biggest challenges in indoctrinating newcomers to virtual learning, Sherdan said, is that they could be accessing the online courses on a laptop, a tablet or an iPhone, and each of those devices displays Zoom differently.

Another obstacle for both members and instructors alike has been their lack of familiarity with the app, which, Sherdan said, proved daunting enough for some at first that three of the 15 instructors who taught classes this fall required  “some handholding.”

In all, BHS trained about 150 members on Zoom’s basic functions, such as muting and muting and unmuting; and how to ask questions. “And everyone has come a long way,” Sherdan said.

To allow the instructors to focus solely on teaching, BHS has also created a “co-host function,” Sherdan said, which allows another individual to serve as the moderator by muting and unmuting participants, or by queuing up participants’ questions for the instructors to answer, among other features.

Getting members to participate can sometimes be challenging in a virtual setting, however, Sherdan said, so it’s often up to the co-hosts to employ “tricks of the trade” to draw them out, such as pausing the presentation, asking and posing questions, or switching to a screen display where everyone online is visible. “People can also talk to each other and see each other that way,” he said.

Going virtual has had other advantages, too, Sherdan said, such as allowing members the convenience of being able to take courses at their own pace and from wherever they choose (one member last semester even participated from Ecuador), and attendance has subsequently been higher for virtual courses than for those previously offered in-person.

And instructors are benefitting from the newfound convenience as well. 

“One of our most popular teachers moved to Florida,” Sherdan said, “and I thought we lost her, but we got her back on Zoom.”

Another upside is that online learning facilitates the presentation of visual information, like charts and maps, Sherdan said, and also allows the instructors to hone in on fine details of the documents using a cursor.

Moreover, Sherdan said, “Class sizes don’t matter so much anymore.”

Before they went remote, 50 people signed up for a popular class on Beethoven, but the classroom could only hold 20, which effectively shut out more than half of the interested members. When the class was offered again in the fall remotely after the in-person class was eventually postponed due to the pandemic, 50 members signed up – and this time, they were all accepted.

Sherdan, meanwhile, said he was somewhat “surprised,” albeit pleasantly, by the findings from two surveys – one given at the end of in-person classes in the fall, the other given at the end of online classes – that indicated members learning remotely had about the same level of satisfaction (around 90 percent) as those who were in the classroom.

Given the overwhelmingly positive response to online learning so far, Sherdan expects that BHS would continue to embrace it long after the pandemic has faded away.

“We’re comfortable going with online as far and as long as we need to,” he said. “When we get back to normal, I see no reason why we wouldn’t have hybrids of classes.”

One likely scenario, according to Sherdan, is that a member taking a six-class course might choose to participate in the first two classes online from their winter retreat in Phoenix before returning to Boston with the intention of attending the last four in the classroom. But when they get sick and can’t attend one of the scheduled classes, they would have the option of going online and making it up that way instead.

With 2020, which has also marked the 20th anniversary of BLS, drawing to a close, Sherdan believes the nonprofit’s foray into virtual learning been an unmitigated success so far.

“It’s been a great learning experience,” Sherdan said, “and it’s been a lot of fun.”

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