“The IT’s great but that’s not enough”: Prison university partnerships and digital technology

Home > “The IT’s great but that’s not enough”: Prison university partnerships and digital technology

27 May 2020

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Helen Farley and Stephen Seymour who, as part of a team, founded the Making the Connections project at University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Australia in 2014. What began as a four year project was eventually integrated into USQ’s system, giving people in prisons across all eight correctional jurisdictions in Australia access to further education at USQ through in-cell technology and distance learning.

Prison learners have (broadly) two educational pathways at USQ. They can apply for a tertiary preparation pathway programme which will make them eligible to apply for a selection of undergraduate degree programmes, or for modules which can count towards a full undergraduate degree programme which can be started in prison and completed either in prison or upon release.

Establishing the fundamentals

The system which now operates at USQ didn’t fall into place immediately, and it was the ability to adapt and reflect on what had gone well, and spend time identifying what needed to be improved, which enabled the project to become embedded in the university and outlive its funding. The project also built on findings from several earlier projects conducted by USQ.

USQ realized that for its prison learners to be able to dedicate the time they needed to studying, they would need access to in-cell technology

For example, in early iterations of the project, the only technology provided to prisoners was fixed computers in a designated common area. This meant that the time which prisoners could spend writing assignments and studying was limited by staff capacity and time out of cell, and students had to compete for access. USQ realized that for its prison learners to be able to dedicate the time they needed to studying, they would need access to in-cell technology.

Using DELL education series laptops means that USQ prisoner learners can spend longer on assignments and fit in studying alongside work, visits and other time out of their cells. However, DELL laptops were introduced only after e-readers were tested during an earlier trial (before being eliminated due to their small screen size) and extensive technology options analysis. Prisoners cannot access the internet through the DELL laptops, so Education Staff at correctional centers access course materials via a USQ portal and load the educational material onto the laptops for the students.

Technology: just one piece of the puzzle

A lot of the research and literature surrounding Making the Connections focusses on digital technology, and I’d expected my conversation with Helen and Stephen to focus on this. I was wrong, and it quickly became clear that although finding the right technology had been essential, it wasn’t sufficient on its own. In Stephen’s words, “the IT’s great but that’s not enough – it’s about the whole package.”

The trust this developed meant that prison officers could be confident in the security of the technology, and that university staff could understand some of the difficulties prisons might face in facilitating distance learning

So what else had been essential for the project to succeed? One significant step was getting prison and university staff into the same room and allowing these relationships to develop. Through supporting prison officers and education staff to visit USQ’s campus, and ensuring that USQ’s academic and administration staff visited prisons, it was possible for each to understand any difficulties the other might be facing and help overcome any barriers. The trust this developed meant that prison officers could be confident in the security of the technology, and that university staff could understand some of the difficulties prisons might face in facilitating distance learning. After these meetings were in place, the progression rate of USQ prison learners increased dramatically.

Business as usual

Once these aspects were running smoothly, the team began to focus on the longer term sustainability of the project.

Prisoner learners actually have a higher progression rate and better grades than students on the ‘outside’.

It was becoming clear that widening participation to prisoners was worthwhile for the university in a number of ways. In one of the state jurisdictions, the programme has lifted participation rates of eligible learners from 1% to over 6% of the eligible prison population, and so far more than 4000 prison learners across Australia have participated in the programs. As well as the financial benefits for the University of having more students and tuition fees, prisoner learners actually have a higher progression rate and better grades than students on the ‘outside’.

In terms of what else was needed to embed the project, USQ now requires repurposed Offline courses to be available through the offline server to incarcerated students using the Offline technology. Though there is specific advice, support and guidance available to prison learners, general university services such as career development, enrollment and academic advice are provided through each of these departments, rather than through a separate team dedicated to prisoner learners.

Should we be making connections?

Making the Connections is not only beneficial for USQ, but also for potential prison learners, who can use their time in prison to learn and develop, and for society as a whole, who benefit from people leaving prison with higher levels of education and stronger chances of finding employment.

Technology can’t replace face to face interaction, but it could help to provide an element of continuity with  prison university partnerships on hold for the foreseeable future

I left the call and, opening an update on the status of the lockdown in prisons, was reminded of our current reality. The call, however, had provided a hopeful window into what could be. Technology can’t replace face to face interaction, but it could help to provide an element of continuity with  prison university partnerships on hold for the foreseeable future. Prisoners’ Education Trust will continue to do our best through our policy and advocacy work to campaign for better access to digital technology in prisons. If you would like to be involved, or have found a way to provide materials to any of your prison students during the lockdown, please let us know.

All of the Making the Connection’s research was publicly funded, so is available online. You can also read more about USQ’s incarcerated student strategy here.

© Prisoners' Education Trust 2020

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