Technology Is Helping Prison Education Programs Scale. What’s the Catch?

Jun 07, 2019

Colleges and universities with prison education programs are increasingly using technology to deliver instruction to incarcerated individuals, even with strict limitations on internet access in correctional facilities.

But the technology is also raising serious questions about quality.

Those are among the findings of a new report from Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit education consultancy, that uses original and existing research to describe the landscape of prison education programs today and the challenges they face around quality, funding and scalability.

Only a tiny percentage of U.S. colleges offer prison education programs—just 200, or roughly 4 percent, according to the report. Technology is one of the ways colleges are trying to scale their prison education programs to reach more students, including students out of state.

More than 1.5 million people—equivalent to the combined populations of South Dakota and Vermont—are incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons today, but the vast majority (95 percent) will eventually be released.

When they are, the skills they have acquired and qualifications they can tout will have a big say in the employment opportunities available to them. Yet for many, those opportunities will be limited. It’s estimated that by 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require a postsecondary degree, but only 6 percent of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. hold an associate degree or higher.

“We’re in this watershed moment,” says Meagan Wilson, co-author of the report and a senior analyst at Ithaka S+R. New momentum, she adds, is driven largely by the federal Second Chance Pell program that was introduced in 2015 and recently extended through 2020.

One example of an institution working to expand its effort is Ashland University in northwest Ohio. Ashland has one of the country’s longest-running prison education programs, having started it back in 1964. State funding has long allowed the university to offer face-to-face “advanced job training”—which can result in certificates in specialties such as hospitality and business administration, but not postsecondary degrees—to inmates in Ohio for decades. Then, in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education launched the pilot program for Second Chance Pell, which provides federal financial aid to incarcerated students enrolled at 64 select colleges and universities in 26 states. The Pell Grant funds cover in person, online and hybrid programs.

Through a Second Chance Pell grant, Ashland University’s prison education program has leveraged technology to expand to 50 jails and prisons across six states outside of Ohio: West Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington, D.C., according to Todd Marshall, the university’s vice president for online and adult studies.

Since 2016, Ashland has begun offering associate and bachelor degrees to its Pell recipients, and enrollment numbers have grown significantly, Marshall says. Where previously the university saw about 350-400 incarcerated individuals enroll in courses each semester, more than 2,100 students are enrolled for the summer semester this year. And in the last three years, since Second Chance Pell began, Ashland has graduated more than 400 inmates with associate and bachelor degrees.

We have a full commencement ceremony ... It’s very moving. There’s hardly a dry eye in the prison."

-Todd Marshall, vice president for online and adult studies at Ashland University

These students earn an official Ashland degree that looks no different from the diplomas traditional on-campus students are awarded, Marshall says. And the university even holds a commencement ceremony for the graduates every semester—whether there may be three or four graduates, or 20.

“We’ll bring in caps and gowns, have a party with a cake and some refreshments. We have a full commencement ceremony inside the prison,” Marshall tells EdSurge. “It’s very moving. There’s hardly a dry eye in the prison.”

While most of these graduates are still imprisoned, a small number have already been released, and they have made some impressive strides, Marshall notes. One is now a youth pastor in his church working with at-risk children and teenagers. Several have started their own companies. And one has even become involved in prison education efforts in Ohio.

It is not yet known how effective other Second Chance Pell programs have been, but in May, the Education Department announced it would be expanding Second Chance Pell to more colleges and universities after the program had “shown significant promise,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement.

The growth of Ashland University’s prison education program to a handful of other states was made possible through distance education, Marshall explains. Students enrolled through the Pell Grant use tablets and laptops to receive instruction and complete assignments, though they are never given access to the “open internet,” he says. A company called JPay, which provides correctional services, including music, money transfers and education, facilitates the technology-enabled learning through a secure version of the Canvas learning management system called Lantern. A similar Blackboard product takes the same approach: “It uses a secure channel over the internet but is not the internet,” Marshall says.

While such programs can help scale prison education programs, they should be approached with caution—at least for now, says Wilson, one of the report authors, noting that JPay is a for-profit company that currently faces a class-action lawsuit over its business model, which is “allegedly exploiting incarcerated people to pay exorbitant fees for accessing their own money in prison.”

“We really need to keep an eye on the balance of access, and quality of access, and scalability [of these programs],” Wilson says. “This is a vulnerable population. Whatever the state decides is the program that enters the facility is the one students will have. They have no choice.”

In the report, the authors also raise questions about whether the type of distance education offered in prisons meets quality standards expected of higher education institutions. “Certainly using technology to support and supplement postsecondary coursework will train students in the digital literacy and research skills most college students gain during their education,” the authors write, “but educational engagement and opportunities for developing certain important soft skills may be lacking when the physical classroom is entirely removed and learning takes place in isolation.”

In Washington state, Peninsula College has been piloting a state-funded program that allows inmates in the Clallam Bay Corrections Center to use technology to complete their work, but all the instruction is still provided face-to-face.

At Clallam Bay, students can earn short-term certificates (20 credits) and one-year certificates (55-60 credits) in vocational programs such as computer programming, business, and pastry and specialty baking, says Sandra Diimmel, the corrections education director at Peninsula College. About 200 inmates are enrolled in related courses each quarter, she adds.

In December 2018, Peninsula College rolled out laptops to students at the correctional facility.

“We load programs onto the laptops so students can go back to their units and work on their assignments,” Diimmel explains. When the students are finished with an assignment, they return the laptop to the sync station in the classroom and load their work onto an isolated local server that the college built. Then, the professor can review and grade their work, load more assignments onto the laptop and allow students to take it back and continue.

Outside that sync station, Diimmel says, the laptops are offline. The advantage of this program is that students can do their work on their own time, rather than having to be in the prison’s computer lab when they work or complete assignments on pen and paper.

“Some of the students who are dedicated are finishing sooner and getting through the stuff faster,” Diimmel says of the laptop program. “Before, they would only be able to do it when they come up to class” and work on their desktops.

It’s still too early to say for sure, but Diimmel is optimistic that, with the laptops, participation in the prison education program will grow. She also says that Peninsula staff have begun to have some “very initial conversations” about offering remote instruction in the facility.

The goal of such an endeavor, Diimmel says, would be to expand corrections education to more students. “It helps transforms individuals and their lives,” she says of the program. “It’s not always easy working in a correctional environment, but the rewards are watching that transformation.”


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