Amy Walker harbors ”some seriously mixed emotions” toward the technology she’s used while taking class in prison.

Her tablet often fails to sync when she plugs it into the communal kiosk, leaving her without access to needed lectures, books, and homework. The messaging function that allows her to send questions to her professor only “sometimes” works. It’s bulky, yet small, with a seven-inch screen.

“On many occasions I have contemplated launching it into space or any other entertaining and well deserved end,” Walker, 43, who’s detained at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo., wrote to The Chronicle. “However my salvation lies within this buggy little contraption.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down in-person classes, many college prison-education programs were forced to rely on companies that sell technology products to prisons. Now, as program leaders look to the future, they’re reimagining the role tech will play in a space that is uniquely restricted, and where some for-profit offerings have developed dubious reputations.

There is “really big tension in the field” right now about whether technology should be a primary or supplementary tool, said Rebecca Villarreal, former director of education philanthropy at Ascendium, a national nonprofit that supports postsecondary-education-in-prison initiatives. Colleges are asking: “Does technology enable reaching more students, increasing access? Then there’s the question about quality.”

These considerations come at a moment of heightened political will and investment in prison education — a moment that advocates say demands both innovation and accountability. After a 26-year ban, Congress approved a broad reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated students starting July 1, 2023. Up to 463,000 incarcerated people are expected to become eligible; more than 22,000 have received such grants through the limited Second Chance Pell experiment.

Incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary-education programs are 48 percent less likely to return to prison, according to a 2018 study from the RAND Corporation.

While the U.S. Department of Education refrained from speculating on how many colleges would begin offering prison education in 2023, it did note considerable interest among institutions in Second Chance Pell. More than 150 sent letters asking to participate during the 2022-23 year; the Education Department accepted 73.

Three colleges that The Chronicle spoke with are in varying stages of adding technology to their prison-ed programs. The University of Central Florida ended its partnership last year with a controversial prison communications provider owned by Aventiv Technologies and plans to incorporate synchronous Zoom classes to reach more students. Washington University in St. Louis is about to pilot a learning-management system, or LMS, that two formerly incarcerated students helped develop. Another, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is tapping an existing open-source LMS that mimics Canvas, though its partner, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, intends to enter into contract with the ed-tech vendor Blackboard.

Any broad-scale adoption of certain tools and techniques would be tricky. State regulations on matters such as internet use, a prison’s level of security, and a prison warden’s unique protocols all determine the breadth of technology restrictions a college may face.

The colleges interviewed are aligned, though, on the idea that technology is best used to enhance prison education rather than replace in-person lessons.

Data and anecdotal evidence suggest synchronous, in-person elements matter to students. UCF’s Florida Prison Education Project program, for example, saw its course-completion rate drop from 100 percent in the fall of 2019 to 68 percent in the fall of 2020 as students struggled to troubleshoot the technology and stay engaged in asynchronous courses.

“It is still very important to me that I have classes in-person,” wrote Jasmine Ford, a 28-year-old student serving time at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center. “Technology does fail sometimes and what technology cannot do is replace that personal one on one experience with a professor.”

Still, technology has proved to be valuable in prison education. College programs can now reach students hours from campus, for example (roughly 70 percent of prisons are located in rural communities). Advocates say introducing incarcerated people to technology so they can build digital-literacy skills is also critical to successfully reintegrating them into society — even if it’s just the basics, like how to turn on a computer, type, and use Microsoft Office.

Some “have never used technology in their lives,” said Robert Taliaferro, a former student with UW-Madison’s Odyssey Beyond Bars initiative who was released in January from Oakhill Correctional Institution after having served 38 years in prison. For years, ”You’re told when you can eat, when you can sleep, when you can use the bathroom. … Now you have this computer, and you’re on your own.”

Without help, “It can be a scary experience,” he said.

Jessica Hicklin knows what it’s like to want to be better; to want to learn and find meaning. She was incarcerated for 26 years before being released in January from Potosi Correctional Center, near Mineral Point, Mo.

It was inside the prison walls that she and a peer started learning to code — first scribbling code on sheets of notebook paper, then obtaining a series of instructional books with a prison-approved software disk to practice. They conceived an idea to build an in-house learning-management system geared specifically for the prison population.

With the help of LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization that provides free coding training, their brainchild — UnlockEd — is rolling out in the coming weeks at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center. And the WashU Prison Education Project is piloting it.

Haley Shoaf, LaunchCode

Jessica Hicklin uses the learning-management system she helped develop when she was still incarcerated.

The college plans to discontinue its use of JPay tablets and the free, compatible Lantern platform, provided by Securus Technologies — the same technology that has foiled Amy Walker, at Women’s Eastern, in Missouri. WashU had begun using Lantern in 2019, primarily for messaging between the students and professors outside of class. Once the pandemic began, though, it became the dominant resource for all teaching and learning. While it allowed the program to run (albeit asynchronously), the “inconsistent, unreliable” access to course material was “really frustrating and really demoralizing” for the students, and is not acceptable long term, said Natasha Narayanan, the project’s program coordinator.

(Securus and JPay, both part of Aventiv, provide prison telecommunications and money-transfer services for incarcerated people. Advocates for this group have accused both of price gouging.)

An unexpected notification last year from Securus that it would begin charging $250 per student each semester with the reinstatement of Pell Grants in 2023 created an incentive to identify another option, Narayanan added.

The University of Central Florida ended its partnership last year with Securus and JPay after similar correspondence, said Keri Watson, executive director of the Florida Prison Education Project.

A spokesperson for Aventiv wrote in a statement to The Chronicle that there’s “always the chance of a minor technological disruption” with virtual settings, and that it works “to resolve issues urgently to minimize downtime.” She added that the per-semester student cost would be “a one-time fee that isn’t shouldered by the incarcerated individual”; the company continues to explore “equitable ways for schools to share in the costs.”

The leaders of WashU’s program confirmed they’re still “fully committed” to the in-person, synchronous model for their students, who are pursuing associate of arts or bachelor of science degrees in integrated studies. But having UnlockEd will give students access to additional resources and learning opportunities, all with prison-security-friendly parameters: white-listed domains (internet sites approved for use, such as the FAFSA form), self-contained sites that connect to a secure local server, and “homegrown” content built internally on the UnlockEd platform.

WashU is making the switch for both financial and ethical reasons. The college has a $980,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation that’s helping it pay seven developers to update and maintain the platform. Two, including Hicklin, are no longer incarcerated. Those who still are make $7.50 an hour.

Harnessing talent inside the prisons also matters to WashU, Narayanan said. The platform “has been designed by people who are incarcerated, and is not in any way meant to profit off of people who are incarcerated.”

Hicklin can highlight numerous ways UnlockEd reflects her insider perspective. The platform is bare bones, as if designed 10 years ago, so as not to overwhelm students inexperienced with technology. Students are rewarded for completing assignments with digital gold coins, short breaks, and positive reinforcements like “Good job!” — an acknowledgement that some may not have developed learning habits and soft skills like emotional intelligence.

“There’s an assumption” that these students are all adult learners “capable of pushing through difficult situations, because, well, we’re all adults. Right?” Hicklin said. “That assumption leads to … [students] failing out of classes because there’s not that additional level of emotional coping built into the presentation itself.”

A group of incarcerated students participate in WashU’s Prison Education Project in 2017. At that time, the program relied on printed resources versus digital tools.

Joe Angeles, WUSTL

Digital tools have supplanted the printed materials incarcerated students used in the WashU Prison Education Project five years ago.

WashU expects to begin using the platform at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center as soon as early summer (enrolled students have already received their laptops,which come without USB ports, cameras, or ethernet/Wi-Fi capabilities). The hope is to then expand UnlockEd to the university’s other site, Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, in Pacific, Mo., by the end of 2022.

“The word ‘Unlocked’ holds so many meanings for me,” Sherri Densing, a 41-year-old who will soon be using the new LMS, wrote to The Chronicle. “These creative minds who developed this program have ‘unlocked’ their own futures, by overcoming their past; in the same manner they are helping me to ‘unlock’ mine.”

The University of Wisconsin at Madison adopted a learning-management system in the spring of 2021, borrowing from Moraine Park Technical College, an hour and a half’s drive northeast.

The system is an open-source version of Canvas, tailored to meet prison security requirements. Moraine Park hosts it locally on a secure server, and UW-Madison pays the college about $3,000 annually to access that server remotely.

The addition has significantly cut down on the copious back-and-forth printing and scanning of student assignments. It has also enabled students to keep in touch with UW-Madison faculty members like Kevin Mullen, who teaches English. The courses do not translate to credentials or degrees, but are meant as a launch pad into higher education.

Just two years ago, “We really didn’t have much in terms of technology at all,” recalled Mullen, who also serves as a co-director of the college’s broader Odyssey Project. When assigning papers, “I would gauge what kind of topics the students were interested in,” then arrive with “accordion folders full of hard copies of articles.”

Innovation has come in steps. In the early days of the pandemic, pre-LMS, program coordinators like Mullen — a self-proclaimed “hands on” teacher — worried about the severed face-to-face communication with students. So Odyssey Beyond Bars sought and received approval from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to restart classes in the summer of 2020 using Zoom.

Every week, a group of masked students would go to a designated room equipped with a Clevertouch TV. The prison’s education staff would log in to Zoom and join a meeting with the class instructor remotely. One-hour weekly tutoring sessions with small groups followed a similar format.

“It was a pretty standard classroom feel,” with the screen replacing the traditional whiteboard, said Neal Stahl, 31, who took Mullen’s English 100 course via Zoom in late 2020 prior to his release in January 2021. The class examined literature by James Baldwin and Malcolm X, among others. Stahl said it provided a mental escape, and intellectual stimulation.

In prison, “there’s a lot more people whose brains don’t want to function very much past that space that they’re in” as a survival mechanism, Stahl said. Class “gave us the opportunity to have exposure to people who were thinking just on a little different level. In the moment, I think that was the best thing for me. I needed that.

While Odyssey Beyond Bars intends to keep using these tools — especially for mentorship components like weekly tutoring, where volunteer tutors aren’t always close by — “the backbone of it is still face-to-face instruction,” said Peter Moreno, the program’s director. “There is a real difference when you’re physically sitting in front of people … interacting with each other.”

The University of Central Florida, meanwhile, is still exploring learning-management systems approved by the Florida Department of Corrections; Watson recently met with a regional coordinator to discuss and review security restrictions. UCF also plans to use an approved DTEN monitor to begin offering a synchronous Zoom option this summer to students at Polk Correctional Institution, in Polk City, Fla., one of its two current partners. “If that goes well, we will look into expanding to others,” Watson wrote in an email.

The Florida Prison Education Project does not offer credit-bearing college courses, but students obtain continuing-education certificates that can go on their résumés.

“We want to take our time and make sure that whatever it is that we’re going to use, it’s going to be something that is sustainable, that is feasible, that everyone has agreed on,” Watson said.

That collaborative spirit is critical, if you ask Villarreal, the former director of education philanthropy at Ascendium. She says innovation, while exciting, shouldn’t happen in isolation.

“I do worry a little bit about lots of different solutions kind of blooming” and state departments of corrections having to wrangle numerous systems that may not communicate with each other, she said.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections, for one, is looking to streamline its work among its nine college partners. UW-Madison and Moraine Park Technical College are the only two that use the open-source LMS. The others use Moodle.

After a six-week selection process with four prospective providers, the corrections department is finalizing a direct contract with Blackboard, now part of Anthology, to provide a cohesive LMS, said Ben Jones, education director at the department. It plans to cover all costs associated with the first two years of operation.

Jones said UW-Madison and Moraine Park Technical College will have the choice to switch or retain their LMS. While the open-source option may appear cheaper on its face than Blackboard, it requires continuing maintenance that wasn’t viable for other college partners, he said.

Open-source tools “get updated frequently, and every time there’s a change, somebody has to know the inner workings of the code” in order to manually update on the back end, Jones said. And it’s “super challenging” for many colleges to provide the necessary staff, server space, and equipment for that when a program isn’t generating revenue.

Blackboard has worked with institutions with correctional programs since 2019, including a partnership with Lee College and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The Chronicle asked if the Wisconsin corrections department and its partners had any reservations about selecting a private vendor, considering the longstanding reports of for-profit companies exploiting people in prison.

Lauren Surovi, academic program manager at Odyssey Beyond Bars, said a diverse committee reviewed the providers, including corrections and procurement officials, professors, and representatives of the colleges hosting the programs. It was made clear to providers that if they couldn’t provide a reliable product operable within prisons’ security parameters, she said, “we’re never going to choose you.”

Jones added that he doesn’t think the onus of delivering a quality education lies on the vendor, anyway. The platform is just the skeleton.

“It’s our responsibility to set up training programs, and do orientation for our students, and make sure that the features that are embedded into these tools work as they’re supposed to,” he said. The company “better serve me well” as the person who signs the contract, “but my job is to make sure students are being served well.”