Closing the digital divide in prisons with innovation

8 Jun 2015

Prisoners’ Education Trust’s (PET) Academic Prisons Symposium, at the University of Cambridge on 9 June 2015, brings together the latest global research and learning from projects which are closing the digital divide between education in prisons and outside.

As universities across the world become increasingly reliant on online courses, academics working in prisons are trialling innovative programmes to ensure prisoner learners, who are prohibited from using the internet, are not left behind. But, as academics from the University of Durham, The Open University (OU) and University of Southern Queensland (USQ) will discuss, secure e-learning could revolutionise learning in prison.[i]

In both the UK and Australia, prisoners can only access higher education via distance learning courses. “Where once these courses were delivered via hard-copy materials, they are now becoming increasingly digital, further alienating learners who are already disadvantaged,” says Assoc. Prof. Helen Farley.

As PET’s distance learning provision in prisons was proven to reduce reoffending by more than a quarter, universities have established pilot projects to continue to provide similar opportunities to prisoner learners.[ii]

In Australia, Farley, from USQ has led a series of projects over five years offering nearly 100 inmates access to multimedia content and diplomas in arts, social sciences and business administration. The course materials are delivered via a secure server hosting an adapted version of the university’s virtual learning environment and eBook readers which don’t require internet access. So far this technology has only been available in two prisons but this summer a further five will be able to access the server. The Making the Connection project has now been extended to the end of 2016, expanding to an additional three states and a further 13 prisons. The project will also launch secure notebook computers so learners can complete their coursework in their cells.

In 2015, USQ officially went paperless, and while for now, they are continuing to provide paper-based distance learning courses for around 450 incarcerated students, Farley says this isn’t viable in the long term. Her vision is that in the future all of their prisoner learners will be able to access courses via a restricted and secure internet.

To date, the project has been a success, with positive feedback from students and education officers alike. One of the biggest challenges is the frequent transfer of students between institutions and often moving to facilities that are not yet part of the project. There is a similar problem in England as prisoners’ access to technology varies from prison to prison. The prison service’s intranet-style Virtual Campus (VC) system provides computer access to education material in most prisons in England, however it is often only available to students for a few hours a week which is insufficient time for university level studies. [iii] Introducing netbooks is a solution that could be copied by the UK, according to Dr Anne Pike.

Pike will discuss the OU’s new pilot, offering its three Access modules to some of its 1500 students in prison via a secure online learning platform connected to the VC. While Pike says this is an exciting and innovative development, a lack of computers and infrequent access is a challenge which could be overcome by following Australia’s example. She says offering in-cell learning on secure netbooks could supplement the VC and face-to-face teaching.

“Education and employment are two of the biggest factors proven to reduce reoffending, so we must ensure people have the digital skills they require to get a job.  That’s why education should be as good as it can be in the prison environment and must embrace the e-learning technologies that universities in the community are using,” says Pike.

To combat the issues people experience when they leave prison trying to navigate the rapid progression of online services, Pike is working in consultancy with the OU to develop a new package of technology support and Student Association mentors to help their ex-prisoner students. Building on technologies developed in previous research projects at the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology Pike aims to encourage ex-prisoners to find employment or training opportunities through the prison gates to release.

Pike and Farley are now planning to share their expertise and collaborate in a number of areas, including a project to make Badged Open Education resources available to prisoner learners by adapting the courses to make them suitable for a prison context.

Also joining the panel discussion ‘Technological innovation: Breaking the digital divide’ is John Podmore, University of Durham and Bob Harrison, from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Editor's Notes

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[i] Dr Pike and Dr Farley’s joint submission to EUROPRIS/ICPA/CEP Conference

Dr Helen Farley's Using Digital Technologies case study.

[ii] In January 2014 the government’s Justice Data Lab results[i] showed reoffending was reduced by more than a quarter amongst people who had received support from PET to study a distance learning course.

[iii] The Virtual Campus (VC) is a secure web-based learning environment provided through a partnership of organisations including the National Offender Management Service and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The PLA published its recommendations for technology in prisons on page 10, The Future of Prison Education Contracts, May 2015

About Us

Since 1989, Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by providing advice and funding for approximately 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.

In 2012 PET launched the Prisoner Learning Alliance to work together with 22 other expert organisations to champion learning for people in prison.