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Last Updated: Friday, 3 December, 2004, 10:49 GMT
Graduation day for silver surfers
BBC News talks to the latest band of silver surfers who have found it's never too late to learn modern new skills in computing and the internet.

Iris Rocks and Rose Hilland
Graduates Iris Rocks and Rose Hilland show off their new skills
If you have managed to navigate your way to this point in cyberspace, chances are you feel confident with computers.

But it is easy to forget how daunting the whole thing can be for novices.

Issues like how to turn it on, use the mouse or carry out simple tasks without fear of doing permanent damage are some of the fears which need to be overcome.

More than 30 plucky pensioners from across Northern Ireland have taken the plunge and completed a 10-week course in computer basics.

The students start by taking a tour around the inner workings of a computer before going on to create posters and greetings cards in a word processor, and eventually progress to learn about email and the internet.

The pensioners received their certificates from Northbrook Technology managing director Bro McFerran, who told them that older people with computer skills were increasingly valued employees in areas such as call centres.

These are people who didn't come up in the IT age
Angela Hinds
Help the Aged trainer
However, it seems most of them did not want to boost their CVs and employment prospects.

Ivor Kilpatrick, who took the course with his wife, says he caught the bug when he picked up a computer for his granddaughter at an auction for just 25.

After being politely told it was "old hat", the 67-year-old set it up at home and hooked it up to the internet.

Taking advice from his son, he then invested in a much better one for 499 with "CD rewriters, DVD rewriters and what have you".

"With the jump from 25 to 499, I thought I would have to learn about all this," he says.

With his newfound email skills, Mr Kilpatrick has been in contact with cousins in Africa and they are now working together to research their family's history using the internet.

Ivor Kilpatrick
Ivor Kilpatrick uses the internet to research his family history
Help the Aged IT trainer Angela Hinds says many of her students have seen their grandchildren whizzing around the internet and want to keep up.

"These are people who didn't come up in the IT age - maybe towards the end of their work, they would have used computers but only learned what they had to," she says.

Mrs Hinds says one of the reasons for the course's success is that many people are taking early retirement.

"They are in their early or late 50s and find themselves out of work but aren't ready to sit at home doing nothing and want to keep their minds active."

At the graduation ceremony, the General Consumer Council was launching its guide to internet shopping.

The pensioners had been shown popular e-commerce sites during the course, and about a quarter of them have already made purchases online.

Graph showing comparison of UK and NI households with internet access
By the end of next year, Northern Ireland will be the first region in Europe to have 100% broadband coverage.

However, the Consumer Council's report says that only two in five homes in the province currently have internet access.

It found that one in ten people aged over 55 could go online at home.

Monica McBride, who is in her 80s, doesn't have a computer at home but uses the ones at her local library on Ormeau Road in Belfast.

She says she now wants to go on to learn how to train others in her age group in IT skills.

Further study

The oldest person to take the course was a 91-year-old woman.

She could not be at the ceremony because she was sick, but the others had a chance to find out about opportunities for further study.

Belfast Institute's Cate Conway, who was handing out details of their courses, says they try to hold classes in familiar locations like community centres as some older people felt intimidated by formal education centres.

"Maybe they've worked in trades or shipyards, and have never had to cross the door of a college so it's very frightening for them," she says.

And trainer Angela Hinds feels that her enthusiastic students now have a platform to develop their skills.

"In the 10 weeks, we can only give them a taster for these things but we hope that they will use that to progress and try other courses," she says.

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