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Created during pandemic, Forever Learning Institute offers educational experiences to Duke alumni, community members

<p>The Languages Building on Abele Quad.</p>

The Languages Building on Abele Quad.

Launched in January 2021, the Forever Learning Institute offers programming to the Duke community that seeks to “reignite [their] passion for learning and give [them] the sense of being a student again.” 

Part of the Duke Alumni Engagement and Development office and a subsidiary of Lifelong Learning, the FLI is open to all members of the Duke community, including faculty and staff, alumni and current students. To date, the largest portion of FLI participants is made up of alumni, according to Jo Supernaw, the director of academic engagement and lifelong learning.

“The initial goal was to bring these amazing faculty voices to alumni during the pandemic,” said Jennifer Chambers, assistant vice president of lifelong learning. “The pandemic sort of provided this opportunity for us to rethink the way we did our programming and start something fresh and new because we had to. What we had done before wasn't going to work.”

Participants in FLI have the opportunity to explore a broad range of courses organized by interdisciplinary themes. Supernaw and Chambers select the themes offered each semester and collaborate with the provost’s office, schools at Duke and units to determine curriculum.

A typical semester consists of two to four themes — the current semester’s themes include Discourse in Democracy, Fortifying the Body and Brain, and Policing Pages: A History of Banned Books.

Under each theme, FLI offers four to six live engagement sessions that are held via Zoom. During these free sessions, which are recorded and posted on Youtube, participants hear from and ask questions to Duke faculty members. 

“I think today, we're somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 faculty members that we've had as part of the programming,” Chambers said. “The goal is to pull in voices from across the University. We always have multiple schools represented.”

To supplement live sessions, FLI offers a playlist of other Duke resources, including videos, articles, books, on-campus events and other topic-related materials.

Supernaw said that during the spring 2021 semester, the program had representatives from each Duke class dating back to the 1950s and representatives from over 60 countries. 

Since then, FLI has sustained its registration number. This semester, the FLI had 6,466 total registrations and 2,225 unique registrations, according to Supernaw.

“Feedback is across the board, but overwhelmingly it's positive,” Supernaw said. 

She said that some of the negative feedback FLI has received is in regards to the curriculum’s complexity. “Sometimes people say that it's too technical, which can happen. We're talking with faculty experts, they know the nitty gritty,” she said.

Though the largest portion of engagement has come from alumni, Supernaw said she encourages faculty to invite their current students when they speak. 

“It's a nice way for students to get a different understanding of what their professors do and how learning can happen anywhere if you’re open to it,” she said.

Recently, the FLI expanded to include in-person activities, offering one or two events per semester. Chambers said that this includes programming at the Lemur Center, the Marine Lab and events that occur during reunion and homecoming weekends. 

Next semester, the FLI will explore the topics of climate change and life’s big questions. The group plans to work with the Climate Committee and the Kenan Institute for Ethics to develop programming, according to Chambers.


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