Taking digital learning to prison

By Helen Farley, Associate Professor Digital Futures (USQ)

It seems like a long time ago since some colleagues from the University of Southern Queensland and I sat down to think about how we might get some digital technologies into correctional centres in order to give prisoners the chance to study. On the surface it didn’t sound too challenging, but in reality there were many hurdles we had to overcome both at the university and at the correctional centre. The biggest and thorniest of these was the complete lack of internet access in correctional centres.

Fast forward five years and 1,700 enrolments later and we’ve developed a system where we can work with the dearth of connectivity to provide high quality courses and programs to incarcerated students across 5 states. It’s been an epic journey that saw us begin with an unfunded pilot project called PLEIADES (for Portable Learning Environments for Incarcerated Adult Distance Education Students). This project saw us installing a version of our learning management system (a version of Moodle called USQ StudyDesk) onto the correctional centre education server. Because it’s difficult to secure access for the incarcerated students to the computer lab, we also made course materials available on eBook readers. This was just a small pilot but the response from education officers and incarcerated students was overwhelming!

This pilot enabled us to secure some funding from the Office for Learning and Teaching for a project called From Access to Success (for which we won a 2013 ASCILITE Innovation Award). This project automated the installation of the USQ StudyDesk onto a server in the computer lab in the correctional centre. By this time, we had decided it was safer to use a separate server for the USQ StudyDesk. We didn’t want to let the eBook reader side of the project languish, so Dr Susan Hopkins from USQ’s Open Access College, continued the eBook reader trials in five correctional centres with a project called the Triple ‘E’ Project (for Empowerment, E-Learning and E-Readers). The eBook readers we used for this project turned out to be unreliable so the project was finished early. We were very upset at the time but it ended up being a blessing in disguise; Queensland Corrective Services asked us to investigate the use of computers or tablets instead of eBook readers. Yes please! A much easier thing to do which wouldn’t require us converting everything ePub format!

And that brings us to our current project, the Making the Connection project which is funded through the Australian government Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program and saw us win a 2015 ASCILITE Innovation Award. This project has seen us further refine the USQ StudyDesk for use on servers but also on 11-inch Dell notebooks (which we call USQ OffLine Personal Devices). We have about 340 deployed so far with more being rolled out all the time.

But it’s not all about the technology, it’s also about the programs. So a team of educational designers, media developers, graphic artists and others have worked to make five programs suitable for the offline world. As you can imagine, copyright has been a nightmare but we have successfully ensured all materials are copyright compliant. The programs we offer to incarcerated students are:

  1. The Tertiary Preparation Program;
  2. The Indigenous Higher Education Pathways program;
  3. The Diploma of Business Administration;
  4. The Diploma of Science (Environment and Sustainability); and
  5. The Diploma of Arts (Community Welfare and Development).

To date we’ve had around 1700 enrolments across 30 correctional centres in 5 states. We started in the Northern Territory in semester 1 2017! But our biggest news is that USQ is going to incorporate the deliverables of Making the Connection into Business As usual at USQ – the project will never end!

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