Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Teaching Reflections

DCU Intergenerational Learning Project

By Trudy Corrigan, School of Education Studies

The DCU Centre for Intergenerational Learning was established in 2008. The purpose of the Centre is to bring together DCU students and older people aged 60 years and over in a teaching and learning opportunity that values the equitable role of both participants as tutors and learners. The philosophical principle guiding the Centre is to research its potential contribution to high-value teaching, learning and research development at third level. To date, over 150 older people and over 160 DCU students have participated in the project which has been funded by Age and Opportunity; the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; and the DCU Learning Innovation Fund. 

Background and context

The idea originated from the School of Education Studies where it was identified that, for the most part, older people were invisible in the literature on lifelong learning. Through a study for a doctoral thesis, it became evident that a Centre for Intergenerational Learning could address this issue by providing the opportunity for older and younger people to meet and learn together. As part of the research older people living close to the University had the opportunity to evaluate their perspectives on living near DCU. The research participants – mainly older women who lived a short distance from DCU – described how they had enjoyed watching the university grow and develop; yet they had never participated in any teaching, learning or research in the university. Participants felt that older people had a valuable contribution to make to third level learning, through the wisdom, insight and knowledge which they had acquired over their life experiences, at both a personal and professional level. They also believed that sharing expertise, knowledge and skills with younger students could enhance third level teaching and learning and in the process it had the potential to benefit commercial, cultural and social interests in society. As one of our older participants says, 

“I think there are too many artificial divides in society. This project makes younger people more at home with older people. We have a lot to contribute to each other.” 

How it works

The initial research demonstrated that the inclusion of older people had the potential to contribute to the quality of teaching and learning for students at third level. In return, it has the potential to contribute to the quality of life of the older participant, chiefly through promoting physical activity, mental stimulation and social engagement. This is achieved through the transfer of knowledge and skills by meeting and learning with third level students on campus. The DCU students participate in a volunteering capacity. They are drawn from both undergraduate and postgraduate courses and from all faculties. The older students are invited to participate; their only entry requirement is to express a love of learning or an ability to embrace new challenges at this time in their life. Learning activities happen on the DCU campus on Saturday mornings during semester time. Subjects studied include “Introduction to…” modules such as “Understanding the Media today”, “Introduction to Science” and “Introduction to Creative Writing”. The modules were designed to meet the teaching and learning needs of both the older participants and the DCU students, and to take account of their interests, knowledge and skills. The module titled “The Benefits of Information Technology for older and younger people today” has proved to be especially popular with both older and younger students. 

The learning space 

The project has created a truly energized and dynamic learning space each Saturday morning with organized teaching sessions broken by breaks that offer opportunities for social interaction. The tea/coffee break between sessions has become a vital part of the experience for all participants. This is the time when the DCU students and the older students come together and enjoy each others’ company. Participants put the experience into their own words: 

“I like the way we learn here. It is fairly relaxed. I cannot get over the buzz and the sheer exuberance.” Older participant 

“The older students are my teachers too; they teach us something that we cannot learn from books, that is life skills.” DCU student 

“Now I get to use my brain, to study what interests me and have met many wonderful students and teachers en route. I really do appreciate the friendship and the mental stimulation. The classes do for my mind what regular exercise does for my body. What a long way Ireland has come in the last 81 years.” Older participant 

Learners at one of the Saturday morning workshops
Learners at one of the Saturday morning workshops


Having left school at 14 years of age over 50 years ago, some of our older learners are now engaging in third level learning, an experience most thought would never happen for them: "It is such a great feeling to come to college each Saturday morning. I never thought I could experience this in my lifetime." 

The most significant aspect of the project is that it provides a voice for older people and enables them to be more visible in third level learning. This has the potential to enhance the quality of their lives and to break down barriers related to stereotyping and ageism. The experiences of both the older participants and the DCU students are voiced in a DCU Intergenerational Learning blog which was designed by the DCU student volunteers and tutors. Audio stories, photos and other outcomes from the learning experiences of participants are also available on their Google site. 

New models of teaching and learning have also been developed by the DCU students and tutors, in particular the one-to-one mentoring model to assist the transfer of computing skills to the older participants. These skills open up a world of learning and opportunity to them through their ability to use the internet and social media. Research opportunities have also emerged for some of the students. For example, through their participation in the project some of our multimedia and computing students have researched accessibility issues in relation to the design of more user-friendly information technology software for older users.The project also brings a commitment to Civic Engagement, since the DCU students participate in the project in a volunteering capacity. 

The future 

The DCU Intergenerational Learning Project embraces many of the objectives of the recently launched DCU Strategic Plan 2010-2012. For example it supports diversity, intercultural understanding and social inclusiveness. It provides a unique student experience by bringing together both older and younger students in a learning experience that is beneficial to both generations. It has the potential to provide intellectual and practical leadership in Irish higher education. It has the potential to be replicated in other third level colleges at both national and international level. It also enables DCU to be part of world class research and innovation that is in pursuit of a vibrant culture and a sustainable knowledge society and economy. Finally, it supports younger people in preparing for the future in social, cultural, technological and economic trends by enabling them to look back on the past and to learn from older people; their experiences that have enabled them to come from difficult experiences in the past at economic and social level and at the same time to experience the sense of fun which older people bring to this experience and their love of learning regardless of their age.

It is hoped that this innovative concept may illuminate the value of bringing together older and younger people to meet and learn together on a third level campus. This Centre has the potential to provide a unique educational context which provides new ways of knowing, freeing our minds of traditional mind sets and assumptions and in the process providing a high quality and inclusive approach to teaching and learning. To end, I refer to one student who expressed her experience of tutoring on the project through the words of GK Chesterton who said that “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” 

Project website: http://www.dcu.ie/education_studies/ilp/index.shtml

Audio stories, photos and other outcomes from the learning experiences of participants: https://sites.google.com/site/dcuyahs/

Intergenerational Learning Project Blog: http://dcuilp.blogspot.com/ 

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