Everything Else

Enhancing the U3A experience

A projector resting on a desk next to a laptop

In 2017 I led a Third Age Trust Summer School on Globalisation held at Harper Adams University.As a direct result of this experience my name was, with my agreement, forwarded to Frank Nicholson of Toronto’s Academy of Life Long Learning as someone who would be willing and able to give a presentation on Brexit to third age learners in Canada. I was flattered and intrigued by this opportunity to give a presentation on this important topic to a Canadian audience. Unfortunately, it did not involve an expenses-paid trip to Ontario but instead it meant a presentation delivered by video link.

I was somewhat apprehensive about video conferencing, of which I had no experience. I assumed that video conferencing was only for top executives or for people who wished to keep in touch with children or grandchildren in Canada Australia or New Zealand. I did not qualify on either count and therefore had never considered video- conferencing. Nevertheless, I was still interested in the venture and so decided to pursue it. I was put in touch with Frank by email and telephone. He is a great enthusiast for video-conferencing and I found him extremely friendly and helpful on the technical issues involved.

The next task was to purchase a webcam for my desktop computer (I subsequently discovered that, unlike my old laptop, many modern laptops have an in-built webcam) and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was relatively inexpensive and, also, easy to fit. I did not have to set up a Skype account as the Toronto Academy uses Zoom as the software for video- conferencing. Frank acts as host for the video-conference and he provides a link to his Zoom account. This meant that, apart from plugging in the webcam to a USB port, all I had to do was to click on the link.  At the appointed time, the participants appear on screen, “as if by magic”.

In January 2018 I gave my presentation to the Toronto Academy. It was “beamed in” to a group of people in a room.  My material was presented in Powerpoint form and I gave a commentary as we went through the slides which were visible to the Canadian audience. The presentation was followed by questions and discussion. The experience taught me a great deal about the facility and the opportunities it presents.  Moreover, the knowledge and understanding that our Canadian friends have of both the EU and Brexit greatly impressed me.

Since then I have participated in five Transatlantic video-cnferences but this time it has tended to be individuals in their own homes. There have been video-conferences with as many as 23 people showing on the screen – mostly from the Toronto area but others from Bolton and Cambridge in the UK. In each case there has been a presentation lasting around 20 minutes (30 minutes is the absolute maximum for this format) followed by questions and discussion. The topics have ranged from the Migration Crisis, the Syrian Civil War, to the Political Situation in Hungary. In our own U3A groups we all benefit from sharing ideas with people from different backgrounds- think of the great opportunities of participating in discussions with people from the other side of the Atlantic.

I have found the experience informative, rewarding and very enjoyable. Even the introduction to, and use I have made, of video-conferencing facilities has provided me with great satisfaction as I maintain that it is important for Third Agers to embrace, rather than reject, new technology.  The experience has made me enthusiastic about the extension of video-conferencing throughout and between U3As.  But before looking at the opportunities, let us consider some technical and practical issues.

Technical issues

To participate in video-conferencing it is necessary to have:

  • -good broadband facilities (and I accept that people in remote rural areas are handicapped in this respect)
  • -a webcam. The webcam on a modern laptop is sufficient and, failing this, webcams are relatively inexpensive. My webcam cost £50 and it did not require an elaborate set up.
  • -an individual to act as host. He or she sets up a Zoom account and provides the link on to which participants click. The host needs a good level of IT skills but the other participants need only moderate skills.

Housekeeping issues

There are certain housekeeping rules that participants need to observing when joining a video-conference.

  • -participants need to click on at the appointed time (and for international links account must be taken of time differences).
  • -the meeting needs a host who can resolve technical issues and a chairperson to regulate discussion. Where a large number of people are involved, it is necessary to ask people to raise their hand when they wish to speak.
  • -as participants are in their own homes, it important to minimise disruptions e.g. telephone or door bells ringing or toddlers barging into meetings (hilarious though it might be after the event).
  • -it is especially important for the person delivering the presentation to be able to concentrate on delivering without distractions inside his or her home.
  • -the presenter should also rehearse his or her presentation beforehand to produce a polished performance.

An underused resource

Let us now consider the great opportunities for video-conferencing in a variety of U3A settings.

  1. There is scope for international links, as in the link-up with Toronto. This could be extended to other countries, especially where English is spoken, or to a growing range of subject areas. The Canadian link focuses on politics and economics but equally there could be international links involving people with an interest in history, literature, geology, physics and many other subjects. And perhaps language groups in the UK could link up with groups abroad for mutual benefit.
  2. Video-conferencing could be used for specialist groups for which local demand is limited but where there is demand spread over a wide geographical area. My own U3A has successful groups studying Catalan and Biblical Hebrew for which demand is limited but nevertheless it might appeal to even more people over a wide area. Another idea that springs to mind is a Book Club (a U3A mainstay) but in this case a group of people reading novels in a foreign language.
  3. People in remote locations, where U3As are distant, could communicate by video-link. This would be a virtual U3A making the benefits of our movement to people in remote areas.
  4. People who are house-bound could participate in U3A via video-conference. I realise that people lacking IT skills would be disadvantaged but nevertheless there is no reason to deny the facility to those who are house-bound but do have IT skills and the enthusiasm for learning.
  5. The video-conference presentation can be recorded via the webcam. Not only can this recording be made available to the group in the future but it could also be uploaded on to You Tube for a wider audience.
  6. A specialist speaker could be “beamed” into a regular U3A meeting by video -conference links just as I was beamed into the Toronto Academy’s meeting on Brexit.

In all these, and many other, situations there is scope for video conferencing to enhance the U3A experience. No one would deny that face to face meetings are superior to video conferencing and I am not advocating video-conferencing to replace traditional U3A group meetings. However, video-conferencing is a resource that should be further explored by the U3A movement.

Bruce Jewell is a member of Stafford U3A where he leads a History Group and has participated in a number of other groups. He has led Third Age Trust Summer Schools on Globalisation and on the History of Moorish Spain at Harper Adams University.