A retired teacher from Wolverhampton is playing a leading role in a pioneering BT initiative to tackle widespread technophobia and fear of the internet.

Marie Ward is among the first people in the UK to take part in BT's Crossing the Divide project, intended to help internet novices take their first steps online.

Until late last year, the 66-year-old, from Penn, was one of the millions of people who had never used the internet and was too daunted to surf the net on her own.

Now Marie, who retired 11 years ago, has conquered her fears and crossed the digital divide. She is eagerly looking forward to increased contact with friends and family, and using the technology to develop her two favourite hobbies - singing in her local Trinity Operatic Society and wood carving.

The former primary school teacher has already begun surfing the net and emailing her niece in the US and close friends in New Zealand.

Nearly one in three people in the UK do not use the Internet and research shows fear is often the main reason why these people miss out on a whole range of potential opportunities only available online.

The BT project, the first initiative of its kind, will see internet novices from across the UK setting out to cross the so-called digital divide.

Each participant is provided with computer equipment and one-to-one lessons by BT to help them get to grips with the technology and start to overcome the mental barrier of going online.

Marie is receiving expert coaching from BT to help her to get to grips with the technology and overcome the mental barrier of going online.

By the end of the eight-week training she and other participants will have gained the confidence and know-how to email friends or clients, shop online, contribute to social networking sites, download music, access local government amenities and even set up their own websites.

Until recently Marie was a full-time carer to her husband, Ken, but due to a deterioration in his health, he is now being cared for in a nearby nursing home.

She said: "Although we obviously still spend a lot of time together, I've certainly got a bit more free time than I had before, which was a factor in encouraging me to give this a try. Before joining the trial I wrongly presumed online shopping, emailing and social networking weren't things that I wanted to do.

"I found the whole prospect of going online a bit daunting at first but I've been really surprised at how much I've been able to get out of it and what a useful source of information it can be, even at this early stage. It's opened my eyes to completely new aspects about the music I love!

"I can also see it bringing me closer to people I know overseas. What's so exciting is that I know I've only just scratched the surface."

Ian Binks, BT's regional manager for the West Midlands, said: "The digital divide is a major problem in the UK. Millions of people are missing out on the huge benefits offered by the internet. It is vital for these individuals and for a UK economy increasingly focused on internet technology that they are able to get online. Otherwise, a substantial minority of the UK population will find itself even more isolated and excluded.

"Crossing the Divide is an important part of BT's campaign to make the internet more accessible to everybody. Other initiatives include our work with the charity Citizens Online, BT Community Connections, which awards internet-ready computers to community groups across the UK, and BT Internet Rangers, helping young people encourage adults get online.

"We really have seen dramatic changes in Marie since she started the internet training course. From increased confidence to genuine excitement about developing her hobbies - Marie has really benefited. Above all, she has seen that the internet is not something to be feared but rather an amazing tool that can help her further her interests and passions, as well as help her stay in touch with her family and friends, near and far.

"She has also seen it can be tremendous fun and is looking forward to inspiring other tech-nophobes to face their fears and get online too."

As part of the Crossing the Divide project, psychologist, Dr David Lewis, will be using the latest technology to investigate the impact going online has on the brain and nervous system in order to explore the differences in responses between a seasoned internet user and an internet novice.

Dr Lewis, said: "If you haven't used the internet before, going online can create the same level of anxiety as that found in a learner driver taking the wheel for the first time. In some cases we have even seen levels of fear as high as those found on someone taking their first bungee jump! Yet for seasoned users it can have the opposite affect and be as relaxing as a massage."

Dr Lewis is working with the participants to help them understand and overcome the psychological barriers that have stopped them getting online up until now. He said: "What is interesting about the digital divide is that it is not necessarily an issue of accessibility - a quarter of non-users of the internet live in a household with an internet connection. More often the barriers are internal, stemming from a fear of the technology.

"It will be interesting to see whether the trial will be enough to build the participants' online confidence, or whether more needs to be done in terms of support and guidance to help them become tech savvy."

Helen Milner, managing director of UK online centres, which provides people with free or low-cost access to computers and the

internet, said: "It's easy to assume everyone is already online, and that the digital divide is dead, or at least on its last legs. "But the truth is it was never just about access - people need the skills and motivation to use ICT too.

"Our research shows around one in 12 households don't have access to a computer, a mobile phone or a digital TV. What's more, those already at a social or financial disadvantage are three times more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide.

"Seventy-five per cent of socially excluded people are also digitally excluded, and missing out on the benefits computers and the Internet can provide."