Prisons, a new frontier for edtech?

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Edtech is furthering the reaches of education, which is now available to more people in more remote areas for less money as a result. MOOCs from leading universities around the world have reached thousands of learners in developing countries. But for one demographic, even in the most developed countries, these benefits have not been felt. Mobilising tech to teach people behind bars will reduce the risk of prisoners reoffending, hence reducing the burden on prisons. It will also help prisoners to contribute to society productively when they are set free. Recently, slowly, this is starting to change.


By Tom Lewis, 


The benefits of education and computer-assisted learning in prisons were laid out in 2013 through a frequently cited RAND report. Edovo CEO, Brian Hill describes this potential as “by far the greatest shift in corrections and the most significant step forward” for prison education.


The story in Europe is much the same. The European Prison Education Association (EPEA) a membership organisation of educators, administrators, governors, researchers and other professionals interested in prison education sees edtech as an exciting opportunity. EPEA will join us at OEB in Berlin in November 2016 in order to extend its network to the wider edtech community, share experience and unshroud an area of growing opportunity.


Per Thrane, a member of EPEA’s steering committee has implemented tech solutions int prisons in Denmark and portrays edtech in prisons as a necessity, not a luxury. We “cannot afford not to use all the tools at our disposal,” he tells me.


The financial arguments for an expansion of education in prisons through technology are strong. The reduction in numbers of re-offenders and the boost to economies from more productive, more employable, and better-educated citizens, once they are set free, will pay for the cost of implementing ICT platforms. And policy makers in both the US and Europe are reacting. A recent high-level report by the UK Government on prison education in the UK outlines the current state of ICT in UK prisons and the need for change.


Challenges for education providers


The path ahead poses exciting opportunities for the providers, such as Edovo, of edtech solutions for prisons, but the route is not easy. A fragmented, mostly public sector, system of procurement hinders easy access to the market for prison solutions. Here the likes of EPEA and Edovo are building networks to make these transactions much easier.


The unique demands of the prison environment call for a carefully tailored approach. As Thrane elucidates, meticulous management is at the centre of how prisons are run and those responsible are understandably risk averse: the security concerns in prisons are very real. According to Thrane, the challenges preventing change in prison education are due to a lack of communication among the educators, ICT departments, and security. It is only when providers cater to all of these areas, and base their solutions on in-depth knowledge of the sector, that they will succeed.


Policies are changing to facilitate ICT deployment in prison education and (as noted in the UK Government report) investment is following. The opportunity is a very real one for edtech companies looking for a fresh challenge, and innovation is in demand.


As Thrane says, “prisons have to embrace technology not only for the sake of prisoners, but for everyone.” This chimes true with edtech in general: the social implications are clear and can transform society for the better. For companies with the passion and the patience to deal with this complex sector, prisons could be a rewarding and profitable focus.


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