By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff
Efforts to promote "lifelong learning" using computers have done little to increase the number of adults in education, a survey says.
Many people did not find e-learning schemes relevant
People were more likely to use the internet for hobbies such as music-making and compiling a family tree, research at Cardiff University found.
Background had more bearing than online access on whether people studied.
Some 1,001 people were interviewed in Cardiff, Bath, Somerset, Blaenau Gwent and the Forest of Dean.
Despite "universal" internet access - at home or in libraries and other public buildings - little more than half the population over 18 years of age used it.
Even then, adult learning via computers was often informal and hobby-based.
Report author Neil Selwyn told BBC News Online: "If people were learning, it was often through something like researching their family tree or making birthday cards.
"Computers made it easier to do things like restoring photographs or making music.
"One man we spoke to was composing his own keyboard symphony on one. He was a terrible player himself, but the computer allowed him to do it."
Dr Selwyn said ministers could increase access to computers but this would not mean all users wanting to sign up to organised courses.
Take-up of e-learning was lower among working-class adults, as had been the case with old-fashioned college courses.
Conversely, some middle-class computer users displayed snobbery towards government e-learning programmes, seeing them as "electronic YTS schemes" for the low-skilled.
The report, carried out for the Economic and Social Research Council, found only 8% of adults were "excluded" from computers.
But 48% had not used one during the past year.
'Not everyone needs it'
Dr Selwyn said courses had to be "relevant" to users and that the government had often failed to recognise the difference between supply and demand.
This extended to areas beyond education.
Dr Selwyn added: "The government is desperately trying to bring in online voting. Even with this, people won't vote unless they think it is relevant.
"It's hardly as if voting booths are inaccessible or cost a lot of money to use.
"It's good to make access to the internet as wide as possible, so that no one is left behind, but we have to accept that not everyone needs it in their lives."
Learning how to use a computer was a large task in itself that many, especially the elderly, did not feel was worthwhile.
One man only used the internet to book his holidays twice a year and that was done on his behalf by a computer-literate friend.
Dr Selwyn said: "Once the government provides computer access, it is up to educators and IT companies to put forward the content that attracts people."
'It can work'
Companies which say they are doing just that dispute his conclusions.
One such, Creating Careers Ltd, delivers 13 qualifications online in partnership with 50 further education colleges.
One example it cites is Karen Ayling, a 37-year-old mother from Brighton, who was keen to learn more about how to adopt a healthy lifestyle and took a course which enabled her not only to learn about the subject but to gain a recognised qualification.
Karen said: "Being disabled, I thought this course would be easier for me than having to attend college and I love using the computer. For the first time in a long time I feel like an individual who can and has achieved great things."
The company said: "In our experience, learning really does make a difference to a wide range of people, of all ages and walks of life."