Silver surfers ride the digital learning wave

Record numbers of baby boomers and older retirees are enjoying the manifold benefits of taking online courses


The proverb “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is barking up the wrong tree in 2021. Record numbers of baby boomers, aged between 57 and 75, and older retirees, including care home residents, are taking advantage of digital technologies to acquire novel skills and develop hobbies. In droves, they are turning on, logging in and not dropping out. 

The enforced lockdowns of the last year have accelerated this trend. Silver web surfers, unable to hug friends and family, have had the time, confidence and access to technology to embrace digital learning. Indeed, 41 per cent of people in the UK over 55 said they were comfortable learning a new digital skill during lockdown, according to BT research. 

Moreover, older generations are expressing a greater thirst for knowledge when compared to younger cohorts. The 2020 LinkedIn Opportunity Index suggested that not only are baby boomers more willing to welcome change (84 per cent) than millennials (74 per cent) and members of Generation Z (72 per cent), they are also more likely to invest time in learning transferable skills (78 per cent) than the two other groups (72 and 74 per cent, respectively).

Rocketing interest in online groups provided by the University of the Third Age (u3a), whose network has expanded to almost 500,000 older adults no longer working full time, supports this data. A year ago, with members forced to stay at home in an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus, the UK-wide charity, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2022, pivoted online, establishing Trust u3a. 

“We’ve been excited to see huge numbers of members embracing digital learning and turning to online and social media, sometimes for the first time, to keep their interest groups going,” says Sam Mauger, chief executive of u3a.

Online learning opens minds and virtual doors

Trust u3a’s online offering has attracted hundreds of new members and spawned more than 80 online groups and courses, ranging from Japanese to birds of prey, from cooking to painting. “Digital technology has empowered us to keep learning and active, and allowed us to remain connected with one other,” says Mauger. 

“Instead of meeting face to face, photography groups can share images on WhatsApp, ukulele players have turned to Twitch to make music together and ballroom dancers are using Zoom to show off their moves.”

She plans to adopt a blended learning model when lockdown restrictions lift, as going digital has opened minds and virtual doors. “It has removed geographical barriers and enabled members to expand their learning and forge new relationships across the movement, from Scotland to Cornwall,” she says.

Discovering new interests and friends is one of the biggest pluses of digital learning for retirees, according to Amanda Rosewarne, business psychologist and co-founder of the Professional Development Consortium, which accredits online courses. “By learning via live online classes, you can interact with others who may also be feeling isolated and lonely,” she says. 

Elderly students enjoy several other benefits. “Studies show that learning new things triggers serotonin release in the brain, which is akin to the effect of antidepressants,” says Rosewarne. 

Further, a 2017 study for Age UK, Europe’s largest charity supporting older people, found that keeping the mind active can prevent age-related conditions, such as dementia. Committed learning, rather than crosswords or sudoku puzzles, is most effective, though.

Thanks to a variety of user-friendly devices and online courses, picking up a language, for instance, has never been easier or more convenient for retirees willing to enter the digital classroom. 

Trust issues: beware scammers

Birmingham-based septuagenarian John Bishop has attended a Greek class for years. Soon after his course went online in the autumn, with lessons conducted on Zoom, he “took the plunge” and bought a smartphone. Technology is not all Greek to Bishop now; all that is required to join his group is the click of a hotlink. “The ease of access and ease of use are key for my generation when it comes to online learning,” he says. “My advice is keep it simple and provide non-bot help.”

While Bishop is delighted that his lessons can continue online, he is looking forward to returning to in-person sessions. “Zoom is not superior to live lessons,” he says. “Video conferencing requires more concentrated eye focus, because all you are seeing is the screen rather than a room, and student interaction is less fluid. It also lacks the ancillary benefits, like the exercise of walking to and from the class.”

Sarah-Jane McQueen, general manager of CoursesOnline.co.uk, argues the convenience of online learning is hugely appealing to elderly students. “Rather than having to get up early and travel a sizeable distance to learn,” she says, “users can now get the same experience from the comfort of their own home and at a time that suits them, allowing them to easily balance learning around their daily schedules.”

However, McQueen notes the surging popularity of online courses for retirees has not gone unnoticed by those seeking to make quick money. “Particularly since lockdown, there has been a rise in the number of fraudulent courses being offered by scammers who are looking to profit from people’s willingness to learn,” she warns. 

“To help address these concerns, providers should make a concerted effort to highlight the feedback and reviews they’ve obtained from previous users that can work as testimonials which assure new users they are legitimate.”

Building trust so older people feel comfortable online, and don’t get left in the wake of technology, is vital. Pleasingly, there is now a vast number of online resources and initiatives designed to boost digital literacy among the elderly. For example, Barclays’ Digital Eagles scheme, launched in 2013, has delivered digital skills training to staff and residents in more than 500 UK care homes.

“There are many retirees who have achieved great things thanks to digital learning, often in fields that were perhaps far removed from what their previous careers encompassed,” McQueen adds. 

Clearly, a more apposite idiom for 2021 is “you are never too old to learn” and, with easy-to-use digital technology, there is no obstacle to becoming a very mature student.