Free Penn Online Course Offers Lessons on Growing Old

A new online course taught by a University of Pennsylvania nursing professor and a nursing educator focuses on aging well, life in an aging society, and seeks to answer that age-old question: how old is old?  

Sarah Kagan, the Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing, and Anne Shoemaker, an educator in Penn’s School of Nursing Helen Fuld Pavilion for Innovative Learning, teach “Growing Old Around the Globe.”  Registration for the six-week course is available now at More than 4,500 people have enrolled in the class so far. It starts June 10 and runs through August 3.

“I had this vision of something that crossed being on Dick Cavett [an American TV talk show that ran from 1968-1986] with a PBS documentary,” Kagan, who came to Penn in 1994, says. She approached her former student and now colleague, Shoemaker, to co-teach the course. Shoemaker earned her undergraduate degree in Nursing from Penn in 2008, later graduating from Penn’s adult and gerontological nurse practitioner program in 2011.

Each week’s materials are presented as “episodes”. These episodes include framing comments by Kagan and Shoemaker and expert interviews of Penn faculty taped in the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing Library in the Nursing School, as well as an interview with an international public health expert. Expert commentary is interspersed with documentary style video segments submitted by contributors from the course staff and global course community.

Students will submit for peer review six items – one for each week of the course – in an electronic portfolio. Submissions might include a poem, short story, a photograph, anything the participant thinks is relevant to the question of the week. Those questions which structure the course include “What is it to be old?”  “What is an aging society?” and “What do aging societies need to do to prepare for the future?”

Shoemaker says the first few weeks of the course are devoted to “demystifying” growing older and aging communities, with the last three weeks focused on “fostering dialogue among participants about what we can do to improve the future of our aging societies.  In six weeks we will analyze critical questions about age and aging around the world.”

An online discussion forum, live webcast discussions, and social media connections on Facebook and Twitter bring the online classroom to students who Shoemaker describes as likely not typical college 20-somethings. Those over 40, the Sandwich Generation, Baby Boomers and homebound people might find the class particularly engaging and eye opening.

Information about the range of online courses offered through Penn's Open Learning Initiative via Coursera is at




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