Incarcerated Students, the Technological Divide and the Challenges in Tertiary Education Delivery

Incarcerated Students, the Technological Divide and the Challenges in Tertiary Education Delivery

Lorna Barrow, Trudy Ambler, Matthew Bailey, Andrew McKinnon
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2019010102
(Individual Articles)
No Current Special Offers


The technological divide that incarcerated students experience when undertaking tertiary studies via Distance Education (DE) separates them from other university students. The aim of this article is to research the problems incarcerated students have accessing technology for the purpose of study and to understand the technological facilities needed to support their learning. Quantitative and qualitative survey data was collected for the study from students in the New South Wales Corrective Services (NSWCS) and from Prison Education Officers (PEOs) employed by NSWCS. The surveys explored the educational and technological concerns, present and future, of this cohort of diverse students and examined the perspectives of the PEOs. Findings from the research highlight that incarcerated students engaged in study felt it made them feel positive about their future, inspired them to continue studying after their prison term, and they would recommend further study to fellow prisoners. Preparing those in Corrective Services (CS) for life after incarceration is essential for reducing recidivism. As this article reveals, educating those in the prison system may contribute to enhanced social and cultural capital and thus it is an important consideration for government.
Article Preview


A recent study on Open Education Resources in Australia argues that while great progress has been made in eLearning over recent years, more needs to be done to enhance social inclusion, a category which includes tertiary students who are incarcerated (Bossu, Bull & Brown, 2012). The Australian prison population for adult prisoners at the end of June 2015 was at a ten-year high of 36,134 (Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2015). Of this number, 33,256 were men, while 2876 of the prison population were women. Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) comprised 9885: that is, 27 percent of the total prison population (ABS, 2015). The rate of recidivism in Australia is currently at 59 percent (ABS, 2014) and is strongly influenced by poor education and unemployment on leaving prison (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2012).

Many tertiary education providers deliver DE to a small percentage of this marginalised group. Courses are delivered through a Learning Management System (LMS), which provides the foundation of the pedagogical design for individual courses. However, for incarcerated students, access to the internet is highly contentious, and not usually available. Without internet access, and studying through a system that relies upon it for delivery, these students may experience additional bias and challenges to achieving positive educational outcomes. This is significant for the incarcerated student not only personally, but socially as well.

The research in this study draws on qualitative and quantitative data from a paper-based survey run in all Corrective Service institutions in NSW that contained students studying certificates, diplomas and degrees at tertiary level. PEOs also filled out separate surveys. Surveys underwent a rigorous ethics clearance process at both Macquarie University and CS.

Innovation in learning, and DE, in particular, is reliant on a range of internet services. The future of learning technologies, as outlined in the recent Technology Outlook for Australian Tertiary Education 2013-2018, is clearly underlined by rapid development in a number of innovations including Badges, Virtual Laboratories, Mobile Apps and Gamification (Johnson, Adams Becker, Cummins, Freeman, Ifenthaler & Vardaxis, 2013). These new technologies cannot be utilised by prisoners because internet access is problematic. This suggests that innovative education models offered to future students will exclude, rather than include, prisoners, further hampering their chances of employment and social inclusion.

An improvement in digital technology is firmly in the minds of the Australasian Corrections Education Association, with a focus on innovation in prison education, including the role of digital technology. Recent discussions with CSNSW indicate that changes in this field are being explored that are pivotal to the delivery of online education that will aid in the successful completion of courses. In the meantime, it appears that while some incarcerated students are doing well, many others are dropping out or not even getting started. The aim of this research was thus to explore the problems incarcerated students have accessing technology for the purpose of study and to understand the technological facilities needed to support their learning. The surveys completed for this study have helped identify the concerns, present and future, technological and otherwise, of the students as well as the Education Officers in NSW Adult Correctional Centres. This paper provides a comprehensive analysis of those findings.1

Complete Article List

Search this Journal:
Volume 8: 1 Issue (2024)
Volume 7: 2 Issues (2022): 1 Released, 1 Forthcoming
Volume 6: 2 Issues (2021)
Volume 5: 2 Issues (2020)
Volume 4: 2 Issues (2019)
Volume 3: 2 Issues (2018)
Volume 2: 2 Issues (2017)
Volume 1: 2 Issues (2016)
View Complete Journal Contents Listing