How Vocational Learning Technology Makes Learning in Prison More Accessible

The mission of Ufi VocTech Trust is to support the development of digital technologies that help people get the vocational skills needed to get more out of their working lives. They provide funding, expertise and commitment to innovators in vocational technology; they build a community of educators, developers, designers, employers, investors and policy makers, and use their funding to catalyse change in attitude, focus and investment in VocTech in the UK.

Here, Project Account Manager Patrick Dunn, shares insights into how they do this specifically in relation to the prison population.

The use of technology to deliver training and education in prisons presents a range of interesting, and sometimes complex, challenges. Although these challenges are not unique, and tend to fall into known categories or themes, secure environments require that our projects tackle them in novel ways. The four most common areas that our projects deal with are:

  • Providing access to learning
  • Tailoring and adapting learning
  • Assessment
  • Training for employment

 

Providing access to learning

One of the early promises of learning technology was the so-called “Martini promise”: learning could occur any time, any place, anywhere. The problem with prisons is that prisoners may be locked in their cells for many hours a day, without easy access to digital learning opportunities which typically take place in libraries or learning centres. The obvious solution, therefore, is to provide in-cell, networked learning on tablets or similar devices.

Various organisations already provide device-based learning within prisons, including two that we have projects with: Socrates and Meganexus. These projects focus on addressing key challenges, such as providing high levels of network security, enabling reliable wireless access in buildings where this might be a challenge, weaponisation of hardware etc.

What has become clear through these projects is that providing a safe, connected device is necessary, yet insufficient for effective delivery of learning in prisons. In order for the access to be truly useful, prisoners need comprehensive content within secure constraints that can be personalised both in content and experience.

Most importantly, they need a user account, such as that provided by Meganexus’s “Virtual Campus”, that follows them wherever they go (prisoners change institutions frequently), including when they leave prison altogether. In fact, providing access to resources after release may be critical given that a prisoner is likely to have less support than when in prison.

Another aspect of accessibility is providing an easy access to environments where hands-on training is required. For instance, our project, “SiteIT”, with the Northern Irish offender rehabilitation organisation, NIACRO used virtual reality (VR) headsets to teach construction skills to prisoners which normally would require physical on-site training. This bypasses the physical restraints prisoners have while offering an immersive experience in the environments they could potentially work in.

Tailoring and adapting learning

In conventional learning environments, the cohort of learners is relatively homogenous in that all learners would have similar academic level. However, prisons create a unique environment where a PhD astrophysicist could be learning next to someone who has bypassed education completely. They have neither the same learning needs nor the same abilities, and a significant proportion have had very poor experiences of education (for example 42% are reported to have been permanently excluded from school).

However, learning technology can be used to adapt the curriculum to the individual needs of the learner, either through pre-diagnostic questionnaires and quizzes, AI and tracking, or simple self-selection from a modular content. The aim in this context is to provide each prisoner with access to learning that is entirely relevant and appropriate to them and their specific needs.

One of our projects implemented with Fluence, an AI company specializing in applied linguistics, uses their technology in forensic linguistics to assess a learner’s prior knowledge based on previous documentation. This can accelerate the process of formative assessment - working out what the learner needs - from a matter of weeks, to a few minutes in some cases. This frees up trainers to focus on other, more valuable work like teaching and doing pastoral work.

Another one of our projects, Digital Change Makers, by MyBe Awards, uses Avatars to personalize learning, allowing prisoners to create an environment that’s unique to them, and which helps them to reflect better on their own experiences.

Assessment

Accredited learning, either through a certificate, a badge, or another proof of educational progress in prison is more likely to lead to employment. But, disparate and shifting learner groups which are typical for a prison environment make standardised assessments extremely difficult. Research shows that out of more than 100,000 prisoners participating in learning, only 100 were involved in Level 3 courses.

Our project with Fluence tackles a key aspect of this challenge by examining large quantities of learner data to establish standards and determine “what good looks like”. The project simplifies the assessment process by creating multiple touch points with each learner, so the system can keep tabs on the direction and pace of learning, the good, the bad and what would have the most impact on their progression.

That said, an assessment is only useful if it genuinely assesses the degree of change in the learner. The NIACRO Virtual Reality project builds assessment fully into the learning where learners are assessed as they complete real world tasks in VR. Here, it’s not about what the learner remembers or how well they perform on a quiz, rather it’s about carrying out real tasks and assessing what they’ve achieved.

NIACRO have also received very good feedback for the “gamification” elements in the assessment. Using games with visual and interactive vocabulary encourages learners to keep going, complete their tasks, and be assessed against completion.

Training for employment

Research by the Ministry of Justice in the UK shows that prisoners who receive employment within the first year after their release are less likely to re-offend. Therefore, projects like the NIACRO VR where prisoners are connecting their experience inside the prison with experiences they could have on a real job, are invaluable.

In this context, the Meganexus Virtual Campus is designed to accompany the prisoner from prison out into the world of employment and to actively encourage them to look well beyond the previously constrained “walled garden” they experienced while in prison.

Still, the statistics show that only 17% of ex-offenders manage to get a job within a year of release. One of our projects, Socrates Software’s “Way to work”, addresses this issue head-on by using digital technology to create clearer pathways to employment. It takes a joined approach which enables a prisoner to choose the jobs they want and then shows them the steps, skills and qualifications they need to get where they want to go.

In the final step, the prisoner is linked to real job opportunities. The joint approach of goal setting, training and job search functionality is of real benefit to employers as well, as it increases the quality and suitability of the candidates employers encounter when recruiting from the prison sector.

This is just a quick overview of some of the projects we are involved in within the prison sector. While there are many complex challenges to address, our projects are taking highly innovative approaches and making good progress in ensuring that technology is able to improve education and training for prisoners.

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