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'Whizzkid' Ted on the Net at 90;FE Focus

Age is no barrier to lifelong learning for one would-be Super Student surfing the Internet, reports Andrew Mourant

Ted Mackenzie, approaching his 91st birthday, confounds the received wisdom that computers are the province of the young. Frustrated by the limitations of the manual typewriter on which he had long relied, he decided to sign up for a City and Guilds computing course at Swindon College.

All Mr Mackenzie wanted was to keep abreast of the modern world and stimulate his ever-active mind. Now he finds himself a talisman for Swindon College, nominated Super Student for Lifelong Learning 1999. He is bemused by the attention, not least when one local newspaper described him as a "whizzkid".

Nevertheless, Mr Mackenzie's achievement epitomises what lifelong learning, with its accent on informality and easy access, is meant to be about.

"I can't remember how I first found about it - possibly through a prospectus," he said. "Then I went down to the centre. I just wanted to learn how computers work, about spreadsheets and how to send e-mails."

The venue was Swindon College's Learning City, which is outgrowing its town centre site next to McDonald's.

Mr Mackenzie found himself studying alongside people of all ages. "There was a co-operative atmosphere in which people talked about their own problems. You weren't formally taught. You just got on with it but had somebody you could refer to if needed."

Dealing with computer jargon was no problem: Mr Mackenzie has a facility for languages, having studied Latin and Greek to university entrance standard when at school. When his career took him to Nigeria he learned the local language, and he is also a fluent French-speaker.

Over five months, Mr Mackenzie made regular trips into Learning City from his home three miles away in Freshbrook, completing 120 hours of computer study. The day he finished, he went out and bought his own personal computer and printer.

"I do have access to the Internet but don't have very high expectations. I've been used to going to libraries and digging things out," he said.

Martin Sweet, lifelong learning centre manager and Mr Mackenzie's course tutor, said: "He was an exemplary student and very enthusiastic. As for his ability, I would describe him as at least average which, considering his age, is very good. He had problems from time to time but we sorted them out."

Mr Mackenzie has always been inclined to give new things a go - he even invested in what is regarded as one of Britain's great technological turkeys, the Sinclair C5 battery-powered tricycle. "I'm afraid it wouldn't do the distances, so I sent it back," he said.

Since retiring as the RAC's chief inspector of hotels, Mr Mackenzie, a former deputy permanent secretary of trade and industry in Nigeria and production executive on the Nigerian Daily Times, has travelled much of the world.

But having finally settled in Wiltshire to be near his sister, he reckons that nothing beats living in Swindon. "I like it here - it's so progressive. I wouldn't want to leave," he said.

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