How online learning can support optimal aging

The Bottom Line

  • Many older adults go back to school, while others turn to online courses.
  • Online courses can offer flexible, interactive and collaborative learning opportunities, that allow you to take courses from instructors all over the world.
  • Engaging with others in online courses appears to foster a sense of belonging to a group (albeit virtual), improve self-esteem, and help address isolation among older adults.

Many people have the desire to learn throughout their lives. This could be to satisfy their thirst for knowledge, to achieve personal fulfillment, to build new bonds, to stay active, to find meaning in their lives, to adapt to change or to develop new skills.(1) But participating in lifelong learning activities can also improve health and well-being in later life. Indeed, it has been shown to improve psychosocial outcomes, self‐esteem, self‐efficacy, a sense of purpose and hope, competences, and social integration.(2; 3) No wonder so many older adults go back to school, while others turn to online learning.

Online courses have become a common alternative to traditional classroom learning and have been promoted to democratize higher education.(4) By the end of 2018, it was estimated that more than 900 universities had announced or launched more than 11,400 online courses that are referred as Massive Online Open Courses (or MOOCs).(4; 5) And these do not include the countless online learning opportunities offered by businesses and other organizations around the world.

Online courses offer learning that can be flexible, interactive and collaborative, that allow you to learn from instructors all over the world.(5; 6) Whether it’s a course in anthropology, arts and culture, computer sciences, criminology, economics, geography, health, history, or sociology, there is an online course for you!

What the research tells us

A systematic review published in 2016 revealed that few studies have examined the experiences of older adults participating in online courses (specifically in Massive Open Online Courses).(7) However, the review showed that older adults are interested in learning online, with people over 56 representing up to 40% of learners in the ten courses that have been examined.

Findings from the review also indicated that older adults have more time to dedicate to online courses, which, coupled with their life experiences, allows them to be very active and to help other learners through online platforms. Engaging in online learning also appeared promising to foster a sense of belonging to a group (albeit virtual), improve self-esteem, and help address social isolation among older adults.(7)

But where to start?

There are countless online courses offered by a multitude of providers from around the world. Before registering to an online course, take some time to make an informed decision:
- Make a list of your learning interests and identify your priorities;
- Set learning goals (for example, do you want to enroll in a course because you are simply curious and want to learn casually, or do you want to earn a degree);
- Choose the course that best reflects your learning interests and goals (for example, check the list of online courses offered by the university of your choice, or consult sites listing online courses offered by providers from around the world);
- Test the online platform to see if it is user-friendly (and spend some time familiarizing yourself with how it works); and
- Actively learn (do not forget to schedule time for the course in your daily routine and interact with other learners).

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Author Details


  1. Laal M, Salamati P. Lifelong learning: Why do we need it? Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2012, 31: 399-403.
  2. Yamashita T, Bardo AR, Liu D et al. Education, lifelong learning and self-rated health in later life in the USA. Health Education Journal. 2018. 00(0): 1-12.
  3. Hammond C. Impacts of lifelong learning upon emotional resilience, psychological and mental health: fieldwork evidence. Oxford Review of Education. 2004, 30(4): 551-568.
  4. Schmid L, Manturuk K, Simpkins I, Godlwasser M, Whitfield KE. Fulfilling the promise: do MOOCs reach the educationally underserved? Educational Media International, 2015, 52(2): 116-128.
  5. Class Central. Year of MOOC-based degrees: A review of MOOC stats and trends in 2018. 6 January 2019.
  6. Peters D. MOOCs are not dead, but evolving. University Affairs. 22 February 2018.
  7. Liyanagunawardena TR, Williams SA. Elderly learners and Massive Open Online Courses: A review. Interactive Journal of Medical Research. 2016;5(1):e1.


DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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