Offender Learners and the Digital Divide

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?