Now is a pivotal time to be examining the role technology will play in the future of postsecondary education in prison. In the past year, the COVID-19 health crisis has increased the speed at which corrections systems are adopting new technology for their postsecondary education in prison programs. Looking ahead, technology is expected to play an increasing role in providing access to and scaling of such programs, especially with the restoration of Pell Grants for incarcerated learners.
Last fall, we funded a three-part project by ITHAKA to increase access to quality learning resources for prison education programs. First, ITHAKA will undertake a 50-state scan of existing technology in the field. Next, it will analyze how prison media review policies may be driving patterns of content self-censorship by prison education providers. Finally, it will test and deploy a technology solution to increase access to vetted, high-quality research materials for incarcerated learners. As Ascendium Senior Program Officer Toya Wall pointed out in a recent interview with ITHAKA, Ascendium hopes such work can be a catalyst for strategic intervention and policy change.
In February, Open Campus Media hosted a daylong virtual convening with Ascendium’s support to explore the future of technology in postsecondary education in prison. The convening brought together more than 100 stakeholders, who addressed a wide range of topics, including the continued value of in-person learning experiences; the promise and potential pitfalls of scaling; and the challenges and opportunities presented by Pell Grant restoration for incarcerated learners.
Participants included recent graduates of college prison programs, nonprofit and higher education leaders, corrections officials, researchers and funders. Attendees noted that the current state of technology in prison education varies widely by state and system. It is as basic as chalk boards marked with sidewalk chalk and assignments written with golf pencils, and as robust as systemwide Wi-Fi, dedicated classroom space and interactive, digital content and tablet systems.
While technology can facilitate wider access, it also brings concerns about the isolation of learners, who strongly value in-person experiences. Technology, especially in new formats and attractive packaging, also has the potential to mask shortcomings in program quality. To help move the quality conversation forward, Ascendium funded the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s efforts in formulating a key performance indicator framework for higher education in prisons. The framework was released in September.
Wall said state prison systems will need to significantly expand their multi-sector partnerships to achieve success at scale for postsecondary learners who are incarcerated. “Technology will play a key role, both for student resources and as a vehicle of educational delivery,” she said. “But the ability to scale while maintaining quality will ultimately rely on partner diversification and centralized coordination.”
Ascendium’s current strategy makes way for this type of scale by investing in coalition building, policy analysis, planning and coordination at the state level. At the same time, we are working to generate new knowledge and advance creative solutions by investing in new delivery models, research and evaluation.