Offender eLearning: an issue of accessibility?

Prompted by my discovery of the Learning and Skills Council funded Offender Learning and Skills Service, I attended a NIACE conference in Bradford at the beginning of the month concerned with e-learning for offenders. Offender learning covers a wide range of institutions from Category A prisons to institutions providing support for non-custodial offenders.

The priority for all custodial institutions is security. Prison governors have tremendous authority and are obviously nervous about the use of the internet and other means of communications, In most institutions CDs and pen drives are banned, necessitating tightly controlled computer networks (where they exist at all).  

The requirements for offender learning in order to assist rehabilitation and a reduction in re-offending are clear.

It has been well publicised that a significant proportion of offenders require basic literacy and numeracy education. Less well known is the need for English as a second language courses. In London 50% of inmates are foreign nationals.

Craft workshops in prisons need to replicate those in the real world and therefore require appropriate technology. Timetabling of traditionally delivered courses can so often be affected by the logistics of prison management. e-Enabled distance learning could offer solutions.  

Many who are near to being released after long sentences need interactive simulations (such as for the use of cash machines) to prepare them for a different kind of world from the one in place when they started their sentence. Employability and the need for inmates to obtain evidence to build positive images of themselves for prospective employers is becoming increasingly important.  

The focus on the need for security, though, means that technological solutions have to be tailored to individual environments within a context of the need for confidence by institutional managers and governors. The picture is somewhat clouded by the role of the private sector who have responsibility for 30% of provision and have strict service level agreements (which currently are unlikely to include elearning) with the Home Office. 

Offender Learning is not just a Learning and Skills Council agenda. It must also be remembered that there are many prisoners studying for Open University degrees and there are other obvious opportunities for HEIs to deliver professional development programmes to an expanding and captive market (sorry!). In an environment where prisoners with Masters degrees are studying level 2 (GCSE) programmes to meet LSC targets, HE should be becoming more engaged. 

There are the seeds of infrastructural developments that are helping.

Within the need for security, some institutions such as Wormwood Scrubs are developing computer equipped learning centres. Learndirect have installed online centres with limited online external assessment facilities that have satisfied the concerns of governors.

The Learner Summary Record is being piloted to provide both on and off line summaries of learning outcomes and results and a record of action planning discussions. This will be linked to the Unique Learner Number and with the permission of the ‘owner’ will be capable of being shared with other agencies once a sentence is completed to enhance employability prospects.  

POLARIS, a VLE service with limitations (no internet links) is being piloted  for a handful of London institutions. Electronic whiteboards that in addition to showing tutor input, also displays the current screens of the students are available to enable the tutor to monitor for inappropriate use. 

So where can JISC help? 

There is a promise of government activity in this area and our advice will be sought. 

A few suggestions: 

Firstly we should recognise that there are many prospective HE students within our prisons and offender institutions.

Secondly we should look  at tailoring those (often JISC funded) technological mainstream solutions that satisfy both prison governor’s needs for security and the offender’s needs for learning and future employability. Systems that will enable national services that can provide only the  ‘approved’ URLs that can be accessed by inmates; tools that more effectively monitor computer usage; the provision of appropriate learning simulations and interactions and the provision of secure information and guidance services linked to employment are just a few ideas for consideration. There must be many more.

Finally, should we not be expanding our accessibility agenda to include offenders within our penal system?

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