Category Archives: Prisons

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Wormwood Scrubs prison gate

eLearning in prisons – is Internet access a human right?

Category : Prisons

Experts in offender learning were brought together yesterday at the Open University in a COLMSCT Colloquium organised by Anne Pike. The presentations from Germany and Sweden in particular were of great interest as they’re further ahead than in England and Wales, where most of the other participants in the session were based.

Lena Axellson and Bengt Wallin reported that Sweden has 54 of its 57 prisons hooked up to a national network allowing students moving from one prison to another to carry on studying seamlessly – their electronic files remain accessible and their teacher stays with them. Students are provided with thin clients and communicate with their teacher in a “virtual room” where the teacher can deposit materials and communicate with the student via a forum. There is also a local mentor for the student in each prison. In England, in contrast, many students drop out when moving around due to different policies in each prison. Critically, Swedish students have individual study plans based on the career they want to pursue when they get out – and 25-30% of them are enrolled in courses.

Giving students access to parts of the Internet which are not strictly controlled would give nightmares to many prison governors but what can you do if the course requires students to search for materials online? In Sweden those students undertaking higher education courses can get a network connection but a teacher has to log on at the same time to monitor what they’re doing. The Swedish taxpayer may be footing the bill for this but there seems to be a very clear correlation between education in prisons and reduced re-offending so it may be money well spent.

Professor Juergen Friedrich of Bremen University discussed his vision of how prisoners incarcerated abroad might be able to join a virtual classroom in their own country so that they can study in their own language and obtain qualifications recognised in their country. He also reported on the success of peer teaching, that this helps encourage social responsibility and fulfilling commitments such as punctuality and reliability. His comment that got everyone sitting up however was that in Norway and Denmark, Internet access is seen as a human right which should be granted to prisoners by default unless there is good reason not to!

We’re a very long way from that here, and I’m told that in some of our prisons there will simply never be internet access, however there was a real sense of optimism among the delegates, and some tangible progress being made towards opening up controlled access to parts of the Internet with initiatives and organisations such as POLARIS and Meganexus.

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Offender Learners and the Digital Divide

Category : Prisons

Wormwood ScrubsA vibrant workshop took place yesterday on this subject with representatives from across the OU, a lot of prisons and various other agencies. There was a great desire to ensure we maintain prisoners’ access to OU courses as these increasingly involve Internet-based activities (see previous post).

To give an idea of the scale of this there were 1658 total registrations for OU courses from prisoners in the past 12 months but it’s now only possible to complete 45% of OU degrees from behind bars. The clear motivation of everyone present yesterday was to push this figure up. My concern is to find ways for us to do this while simultaneously moving forward with our development of online pedagogies. Proceeding with a lowest common denominator approach of producing printed materials only just to maintain prisoner student numbers would be disastrous for the University – and having to provide printed alternatives for some of the more imaginative interactive and multimedia materials would be extremely costly and disadvantageous anyway to prisoners.

The way forward clearly is web-based access to OU materials for offender learners. What makes this extremely difficult is the complete variety in approaches to this in different UK prisons, minimal resources and the lack of a central government policy. Understandably prison governors are paranoid that one of their prisoners will cause some mischief on the Internet, so their inclination and even more so that of their heads of security is to ban Internet access altogether. More liberal central policies can also be blocked quite easily by someone further down the prison hierarchy and at one high security prison only two of the 35 staff themselves have access to the Internet at work so there’s no great recognition of its potential benefits.

There are three possible ways forward, all of which we may attempt. Firstly there’s the Moodle on a stick option. The education officer (with Internet access) downloads the latest course materials onto a USB stick and puts it into the prisoner’s non-Internet-connected machine so they can work away on their OU course offline. This has potential but prison officers don’t like USB sticks very much and the logistics are complex.

A second model which will work in some prisons is to put the OU courses on the prison intranet. At least two prisons represented yesterday said they could do this. Moodle gets installed on the prison intranet (easy to install, free, and no need to worry about licences etc – another good reason to have gone for Moodle) We transfer OU materials and hey presto the prisoners get a similar learning experience to other students – as far as online, multimedia, interactive self-study materials are concerned anyway.

Finally, there’s the option of access to selected educational websites from labs of Internet-connected computers inside prisons – the POLARIS model. This is no doubt the best way forward but it has only just been kicked off in a few London prisons. There is simply not yet the resource or technical expertise to do this across the board. Will we ever be in the enviable position of Sweden where there is a single learning intranet for all prisons?

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Wormwood Scrubs prison gate

Doin’ time in the Scrubs

Category : Prisons

I was invited to Wormwood Scrubs today to see its educational facilities and look at an initiative called POLARIS which is introducing tightly controlled access to educational websites for offender learners in most of the London prisons.

Wormwood Scrubs prison gateEducating prisoners is a key part of the OU’s mission to “promote fair access for all” and needs to continue but here’s the problem: while I’m busily promoting the benefits of elearning across the University, and increasing numbers of our courses require use of the VLE, there are correspondingly fewer offerings available to those without Internet access. Hence we risk losing many of our offender learners and they risk missing out on the benefits of an OU education.

The POLARIS Project is a ray of hope which may allow us to provide parts of our online content to those behind bars and maintain the variety of OU courses available to them. VLEs do not generally allow the restriction of certain aspects of a course to specific groups of students. The roles and permissions architecture we’ve introduced to Moodle would allow us to control very tightly which features of our courses were available to offender students – in particular disabling any access to communications facilities with the outside world.