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Aligning the Conversation on Technology Use for Education Programs in Prisons and Jails

Aligning the Conversation on Technology Use for Education Programs in Prisons and Jails

A Collaborative Update and Call to Action for the Education in Prisons and Jails Research Community

Given recent policy changes and expanded access to postsecondary education, technology options for education programs in prisons and jails are increasing at all levels. Education technology vendors are responding to these changes with new platforms, instructional content, and devices that can be used to support education programming inside facilities. 

At the same time, there is a growing need for research on the use of technology in education programs in prison and jails. In the past, the security concerns of departments of corrections have necessitated that research focus narrowly on questions of access—in other words, getting technology into facilities. Although access is still a significant question and challenge for the field, a broader research agenda is needed to inform decisions about what education technology to use, how to integrate it into instruction, and how to evaluate its effectiveness.  

Challenges and Initiatives for Education Technology Use in Prison

These rapid and expansive changes seem poised to increase technology access, but they have also led to what practitioners and administrators have characterized as “a firehose of information,” as they are the point of convergence for new policies, regulations, vendor selection, and research reporting. 

To help the field make sense of this deluge of emerging information, researchers from Ithaka S+R and RTI International jointly delivered a session on technology use in education programs in prisons and jails at the 77th annual Correctional Education Association International Conference and Training Event in Portland, Oregon, in August 2023. This session helped to align our respective work with the goal of opening a broader conversation with the field about how to provide quality access to and use of educational technology. For example, for the US Department of Education, RTI staff developed the Correctional Educational Technology Ecosystem, which describes the necessary policies, partnerships, instructional strategies, and technical infrastructure needed to select and integrate technology that aligns with student learning goals. In parallel with this work, Ithaka S+R, with the support of Ascendium Education Group, conducted a national survey of the technology infrastructure available to higher education in prison programs, documenting not just technology availability, but also ongoing challenges with access and use and expectations around future implementations. 

At the core of our respective work is the motivation to expand the conversation from technology access to quality of access to, and use of, technology in education programs in prisons and jails.  In doing so, we acknowledge the need to align the language we use to describe how students interact with technology. Readers of Ithaka S+R’s blog may already be familiar with our deliberate approach to thinking about the language we use in our work, and this same approach applies to how Ithaka S+R and RTI suggest we differentiate among technology access, quality of access, and quality of use of technology.

Key Definitions to Create a Common Language

As a starting point, we offer the following definitions: 

  • Technology Access: The simple presence/absence framework for understanding whether students are allowed and able to use technology. When present, “access” in this context mostly refers to the existence of various components of a technical infrastructure to support student learning, such as the availability of network connections and hardware and software for use in education programs. 
  • Quality of Access: A more nuanced framework for understanding how students can access technology, for how often and how long, under what conditions, and with what constraints. These dimensions of access quality can begin to give us insight into what environmental, administrative, and logistical constraints shape the experience of students receiving education in prison and jails. 
  • Quality of Use: Considerations for how technology is being used in education programs and the extent to which the selected technological solution aligns with student learning goals. These considerations range from building student digital literacy skills to using best practices for integrating technology into instruction, such as by promoting active uses of technology (e.g., for content creation, rather than consumption) and facilitating opportunities for student collaboration. 

As we continue to pursue separate research studies, using similar language to describe how technology is being integrated into education programs offered in prisons and jails will provide a common lens for understanding our findings. In the short term, this will ensure that RTI’s work to develop and strengthen student-centered ecosystems and Ithaka S+R’s more granular data on programs speak to each other directly, so that administrators, practitioners, and researchers in the field can draw from the well of existing research as they need, rather than drink from a firehose. In the long term, this is a first step in embracing our common interest in providing students in education programs in prisons and jails with equitable and quality access to the technology they need to succeed in education and to prepare for life after release. We hope our colleagues and partners will join us in this ongoing dialogue as we take steps to align the research community around a shared praxis.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Jordan Hudson (Research Education Analyst), Laura Rasmussen Foster (Manager, Adult Education Studies), Ess Pokornowski, Kurtis Tanaka to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.