Improving access to higher education and distance learning

Pike, Anne and Irwin, T. (2008). Improving access to higher education and distance learning. In: Fifth EDEN Research Workshop, 20-22 Oct 2008, Paris, France.



This paper discusses barriers to higher education and distance learning in a prison environment and suggests innovative pedagogical and technological improvements.

Offenders are an extremely vulnerable layer of society; they are far more likely to have truanted or been excluded from school and are more likely to have left school with no qualifications. Often the standard classroom environment offered in prison is not appropriate or is not at the required level to meet their individual educational needs. Access to higher education (HE) and distance learning (DL) are required to develop the confidence and skills to gain meaningful employment on release and to open new doors to rehabilitation.

The authors of this paper each completed longitudinal offender learner studies evaluating HE pedagogy within a UK prison setting. Pike conducted in-depth & informal interviews, observational studies, questionnaires and longitudinal studies with 91 prison learners and staff (tutors, co-coordinators, managers, and librarians) across 15 UK prisons. Irwin's ethnographic study collected 35 prisoner biographies within the Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland over a 5 year period. The findings of these studies (Pike, 2007B, Irwin, 2008A) identified barriers for educators in a prison environment and potential pedagogical and technological routes to engaging prisoners in HE learning (e.g. flexible pedagogy, safe yet innovative e-learning platforms and distance education models).

The authors have used their knowledge from their independent research and their experiences as practitioners, to discuss the issues identified at a series of international workshops at the 5th Pan Commonwealth Forum on Distance Education in July 2008. The presenters at the workshops, which included the authors, came from England, Northern Ireland, Spain, France and India. They formed a study group to debate the benefits and the barriers to HE and DL for offenders, security staff and educators. This paper links some of the findings from the international workshops to transnational research and develops arguments for 'best practice' which are debated within a national and international policy context. Recommendations for improved pedagogy and technology are proposed.

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