OLDER PEOPLE are logging on to the 21st century in record numbers as they go back to class to learn the mysteries of the personal computer.
Latest research shows that 51 per cent of courses being taken up by the over 65s are in computing. The findings were revealed at a conference staged by National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) in Leicester yesterday.
The report, What Older People Learn, by Alan Tuckett and Fiona Aldridge, based on a survey of 5,053 people aged over 17 across the UK, shows that computing is less popular with the 17-44 age group, many of whom are more likely to have become familiar with computers as teenagers and at school.
Mr Tuckett, director of Niace, said: "It is no surprise that computer skills are so popular for older people. The physical distance they have from family and friends makes it important to reduce isolation. There is also a desire to keep an eye on the latest developments."
Computing accounts for 24 per cent of the courses taken by all adults. While the over-65s are embracing computers, the proportion of people over 75 who choose this subject is much smaller. The report says that this age group still largely regards modern technology as "not for them".
"Encouraging adult learning in all its forms is under threat," Mr Tuckett said. "It is important to listen to those who benefit to help us better understand how the complex and broad ways of learning, particularly in later life, are valued.
"People who carry on learning throughout their lives lead healthier lives. Learning delays the effects of Alzheimer's on learners' social interactions.
"Older people are more civically active, they vote in larger numbers than young people and are usually the mainstay of voluntary organisations."
The research that led to the report was undertaken in 2005. It shows that adults are increasingly choosing courses that relate to working life, at a time when the older workforce is expanding and people are retiring later in life.
But it maintains that studying for intellectual stimulation and the development of interests outside work remains popular, although it is under threat from the reduced funding of courses for leisure, which has led to increased fees for those using FE colleges.
Another trend that has emerged is that women are more likely to find out about courses through friends. Niace says that this suggests more work needs to be done to inform men about the opportunities on offer.
The report claims the Government's emphasis on funding courses that lead to qualifications works against older people, who it says are more motivated by knowledge and skills than exam passes.
It says: "Qualifications are clearly much less relevant for older adults and a skills strategy focused solely on the acquisition of qualifications will therefore not be fit for purpose in addressing their needs."
Niace says it hopes that the survey will influence ministers towards a softer line on funding of adult education, adding: "There can surely be few more useful policy goals than strengthening the range of opportunities for older people to enrich their lives through learning."