In 2013, the federal government allocated $4.39 million under its Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), to enable prisoners, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who had been incarcerated, to access pre-tertiary and undergraduate programs.
Under the ‘Making the Connection’ project, there were almost 1,000 enrolments with the University of Southern Queensland (USQ). These prisoners, who under Australian jurisdictions are not permitted to access the Internet, are now able to access USQ OffLine StudyDesk, a constellation of software apps used to support online and augmented teaching and learning. This version of USQ’s Learning Management System doesn’t require access to the Internet.
This project represents a core value for the university around providing opportunities for a population of people who wouldn’t normally have access to education, says USQ’s CIO, Kenneth Edward Udas, who heads the project. It allows them to develop digital literacies that will make them more employable when they leave prison.
“One of the things prisoners have a lot of is time,” says Udas. “This allows them to study, read, write and then they basically are able to work when they can. When they get to the education centre, which they may only be in for a week, they can upload materials and then it makes it back to USQ for grading,” he says.
Enrolments have been growing from term to term and the university is also seeing a larger percentage of students starting study in degree program rather than just tertiary preparation, which is a good sign, says Udas.
USQ OffLine StudyDesk is deployed on two technologies: the USQ Enterprise Platform (server) and the USQ OffLine StudyDesk.
Since April, a kiosk hosted at USQ and accessed through a prison administrative network (which is Internet-enabled), allows education officers to download updates and courses to be installed on USQ’s Enterprise Platform, which provides a local copy of study materials at the correctional facility. Prisoners access these materials using offline personal devices.
Udas and his team identified several critical success factors for the project. Having actively engaged education officers at each prison, and building strong relationships with these officers by attending correctional training days and holding induction days at USQ, have been critical, says Udas.
This was particularly important to ensure education officers, whose expertise lies in education rather than technology, are able to install the software and update course materials.
“The project seeks to ensure that we actively understand offline students to ensure that their needs were at the forefront of design considerations,” Udas says. “The project has conducted regular focus groups with incarcerated students and used the feedback to refine the software.”
Getting close to where learning happens
“When I think about innovation within our context, it’s about getting as close as possible to where learning and teaching actually happens,” says Udas. “That’s where we’ll find sources of creativity – it’s about how we convert that creativity into action.”
A key innovation is ‘Makerspace’, an initiative of USQ’s Academic Services Division Library Services which explores creativity across art, science, technology and enterprise. It offers workshops and activities to support the USQ community to connect with new technologies.
These include 3D printing, mini consumer devices such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino and Aurasma to explore innovative educational concepts, Udas says.
USQ is also running educational technology projects called ‘Technology Demonstrators.’ These projects have included experimentation with robotics in engineering, 3D printing in anthropology and mathematics, and wearable cameras for POV resource development.
This program encourages teachers who feel that they can improve processes to give it a shot.
“If they can articulate what they are trying to demonstrate and they can do it in fewer than 90 days – we move it forward. This creates low barriers, low cost and almost no risk. And if it doesn’t work, no big deal. We’ve had about two dozen of these move forward.”
For instance, an anthropology professor wanted to get skeletal remains out to students so they can do identifications. Normally, it’s quite expensive to move skeletons around.
“So we decided to scan and render them in 3D using a 3D printer,” says Udas. “They get sent out just like other materials and come back at the end of the class and they can be used many times, whereas skeletons tend not to be. This reduces cost and also increases the ability of students to do more tactile, hands-on learning,” he says.
Dealing with expectations
There’s always resourcing constraints as a university CIO, says Udas, because “nine times out of 10 when we are doing something new, it’s not replacing something old.”
“It’s building new capacity. A lot of it has to do with just being responsive to changing learner needs. The type of university we are, the students tend to be very heterogeneous, we have students who come to us who are very capable and some who are much less so.
“We work with a lot of students in rural environments. There’s always the tension of prioritisation – it provides a bit of focus and discipline,” he says.
There is also a constant layer of expectations that build from students and staff.
“I am from New England in the United States where it is acceptable if it snows or there is an emergency, that the campus is closed for the day whereas it’s absolutely unacceptable for the learning management system to be down for any period of time,” Udas says.
“So setting expectations and helping students and teachers understand how to work in the environment – improving the communication we have as service, those things are things that are a bit mundane but there are the meat and potatoes of what we need to do.”
Promoting diversity, addressing the pay gap
Udas and his team have promoted diversity and a culture of respect at the university. Compensation for female senior and middle managers has been adjusted to close all gender-related salary gaps, he says.
On a broader scale, the Academic Services Division, is hosting a series of ‘On Country’ professional development workshops where staff members visit important Aboriginal culture sites.
The workshop has been facilitated by USQ staff who have been involved as either contributing or principal authors of the Reconciliation Action Plan, Social Justice Plan, and Cultural Competency Framework, as well as at least one Aboriginal elder.
“We have scheduled three workshops and will plan others in 2017,” says Udas. “At least one senior leader in the IT division will participate in each of the workshops. The intent is to provide a basic level of exposure to local Aboriginal culture and follow-up with additional learning opportunities.”