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With the dark days, gloomy weather and a seemingly never-ending lockdown, a host of new virtual courses are proving to be a haven for people looking to escape the January blues.

The Institute of Continuing Education in Cambridge (ICE) usually offers weekend or week-long live-in courses at its beautiful Madingley Hall site.

But when those had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, course organisers say they have been pleasantly surprised by the interest from all over the world in their online courses, which seem to be especially helpful for people who are isolated and want to meet like-minded people for lively discussions.


Jim Gazzard, director of ICE, said: “We are finding, particularly for the winter courses, that we’re attracting a slightly older audience. For people who are in the middle of January in the northern hemisphere it is pretty cold and dark and they are wanting to belong to a community of learning. And throughout lockdown when they are not able to see children and grandchildren or neighbours they are able to feel part of something when they join a course.

“We have seen people desperate for social interaction and they have met people on our courses from diverse communities around the world. We also have people dealing with furlough or redundancy who are worried about the future of their career and are looking to get back into learning. This is an opportunity for people to dip their toes back into education.”

The Virtual Winter Festival of learning, which has launched this week at ICE, is a follow-up from the virtual festival last summer when in-person courses had to be moved online due to the pandemic.

Dr James Gazzard, director of the Institute of Continuing Education. Picture: Michael Bailie. (44000645)
Dr James Gazzard, director of the Institute of Continuing Education. Picture: Michael Bailie. (44000645)

ICE is offering more than 50 courses on a wide variety of subjects, delivered online by leading Cambridge academics and guest subject specialists.

Some of the courses on offer are: Great Caribbean Poets, Illuminated Manuscript Masterpieces of Medieval England, An Introduction to Cryptography, The Psychology of Adolescence, The Impact of Social Media: Historical, Cultural and Political perspectives, and Writing Fiction: Character.

Jim added: “The beautiful surroundings at Cambridge can be a draw for our students but actually there are many people who just cannot get here. They are busy, they have complex lives in terms of childcare and caring for relatives. Some people just don’t want to travel and we have found a really different audience. And really it is the quality of Cambridge teaching that students want. Not being in the place does have disadvantages but it has opened the door to many students. Lot of people have wanted to attend one of our programmes and haven’t had the opportunity until now.

Attending a previous course at ICE (44000613)
Attending a previous course at ICE (44000613)

“Hopefully there is something for everyone. We want to change the idea that Cambridge is an intimidating environment and make it welcoming and a participatory environment. We are trying to make it less about the buildings at Cambridge and more about the people. This isn’t really about professional education, it’s about personal development – learning new things and learning how to think.

“The summer festival was incredibly successful with about 2,300 enrolments and the winter festival is approaching 1,100 enrolments.

“It’s a real celebration of the best of Cambridge open to the whole world and we hope for an affordable price level – and it has the advantage of not having to travel to Cambridge.

He added: “For the past 145-plus years we have been about open access to Cambridge.

“You don’t have to have three A stars at A-level to study with us. We don’t care about your educational history – it’s about where you are going now. And it’s an opportunity to engage with a Cambridge academic.

“We may have an accountant from Brazil, a poet from Australia and and an engineer from Ely all in the same classroom.

“The whole point of what we do is ask people to bring their life experiences to the peer learning. We try to make it democratic and inclusive.”

Students are taught through a series of pre-recorded video sessions, delivered by the course director. There is be an opportunity to take part in discussion forums with other students.

Course leaders suggest spending around 1.5 hours a day on study.

To find out more, visit ice.cam.ac.uk.

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