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Ruth McFarlane

Ruth McFarlane

Senior Manager Open University Students in Secure Environments.

All Posts by Ruth

Digital lets Open University increase its prison reach

Open University champions the benefits of digital study materials for prisoners.

The (digital) stars are aligned

Ruth McFarlane, head of the Open University’s work with students in secure environments, follows up my recent account of a conference on digital developments in prison, with this guest post on how the OU is rolling out the benefits of digital study materials for prisoners.

Digital by design

People have been hoping, lobbying, working for greater access to digital study materials in prisons for a long time now. My colleague Anne Pike (among many others) has long espoused the multiple benefits – access to a high quality study experience; ability to study in cell at evenings and weekends; relieving boredom whilst increasing digital skills which are vital in the community. Finally this year it seems as though the stars are aligned and the dream can become a reality.

Various factors are changing. The understandably risk averse security concerns can now be countered with technology that tracks digital use and restricts hacking. Socrates Software are just one company who have developed a secure digital solution which is now being trialled in prisons.

For The Open University (OU), renowned for our high quality distance learning teaching, the move in recent years to a “digital by design” approach has in fact had the contradictory result of requiring more printing of materials to meet the needs of those groups (including students in prison) who cannot access the digital content. For many students this means receiving several packages of printed materials, often exceeding 500 pages, which must be managed within the confines of a small cell. Some students are able to make use of the Virtual Campus, which already hosts OU content, but rules about purposeful activity and work requirements often mean that OU students cannot get to the library or education centre during the working day and so are not able to log on to the Virtual Campus for more than an hour or two a week.  This year we have reached a tipping point where the cost and complexity of printing has risen while the cost of secure devices has fallen and we are now able to make a convincing case for introducing secure in cell technology.

Pilots in Spring 2019

The OU Students in Secure Environments (SiSE) team has always been keen to stress the importance of partnerships in the development of digital solutions. A single device needs to serve many purposes including kiosk and canteen functions, visit and appointment booking, family contact and resettlement planning as well as education. The Socrates 360 device achieves all of these things, including a significant partnership with Care UK, offering continuity of healthcare. We hope to start our first pilot in spring 2019, working in partnership with governors and subject to HMPPS approvals. We are also exploring options for secure laptops, with similar functionality.

We need to start small and test what works, so during this pilot we will gather evidence relating to the effectiveness of in-cell devices, using feedback from students, tutors and prison staff, measuring academic success, cost impact, OU efficiencies, environmental impact (paper, postage), reduction in materials going missing, continuity of study on transfer and on release and increase in digital skills. However we also recognise the value of proper human contact and the OU is already increasing study skills sessions, academic seminars and staff support in prisons.

One of the most exciting opportunities is that free Open Learn resources can also be offered on tablets. Some prisons already make ingenious use of these by downloading or printing content. But availability on tablets will mean that the whole prison population can access study pathways starting with a 10 minute video, leading to a range of short courses of between 1 and 24 hours before considering whether to embark on a degree. It really will open up the world of education.

OU students in prison already achieve results on a par with mainstream students. And that is when faced with all the disadvantages of studying on paper, in a cell. Imagine what they could achieve if they have equality of access to digital materials.

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