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Digital learning within custodial education

Bethany Cooke, Maths Tutor in Custodial Education and Student at Nottingham Trent University

Online learning provides a platform for collaboration where learners can share resources and learning outcomes (Kelsey & Taylor-Beswick, 2016; Stoll et al., 2006; Scott, 2018). However, prisoners are considered to be one of the most disadvantaged groups in the digital age due to outdated and underused prison technological equipment (Coates, 2016; Palmer et al., 2020).

An educational practitioner can use a multitude of digital platforms creatively to simulate a virtual classroom environment – such as Microsoft Teams, Google Drive and Padlet (Scott, 2018). However, for online learning to work successfully in practice, learners and education facilitators need to be given access to sufficient knowledge about the chosen online learning platform. During the Covid-19 pandemic education practitioners were encouraged to teach learners virtually, but what happens to those learners who cannot fully access these virtual learning platforms?

Some prisons in England and Wales use a secure web-based intranet system called Virtual Campus, powered by Meganexus, which enables learners to access a range of learning materials digitally that ordinarily would only be accessible online (Prisoner Learning Alliance, 2020; The Open University, 2021). This digital platform has the potential to support education and motivate these hard-to-reach learners, and, in doing so, contribute to reducing reoffending rates (Coates, 2016; Prisoner Learning Alliance, 2020). However, in my experience as a tutor within multiple custodial education departments, Virtual Campus is underutilised. The Prisoners’ Education Trust (Taylor, 2014) study findings showed that 83 per cent of survey respondents felt that Virtual Campus is not easily accessible within prison and only 23 per cent of respondents felt that the use of this platform supported their digital skills. This is a shocking yet unsurprising statistic, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic during which face-to-face custodial education temporarily closed.

In England and Wales two-fifths of adults engaging in formal learning (learning to achieve a recognised qualification) currently do so via distance learning, of whom two-thirds participate via a digital platform (Prisoner Learning Alliance, 2020). During the Covid-19 lockdown these learners could continue to participate in these courses digitally. However, access to digital technology within the UK custodial estate is varied and there does not seem to be one central strategy regarding digital learning (Coates, 2016; Prisoner Learning Alliance, 2020; Palmer et al., 2020). The lack of clarity regarding digital learning within custodial education during the lockdown has led to some prisoners becoming increasingly disengaged in education.

‘The lack of clarity regarding digital learning within custodial education during the Coronavirus lockdown has led to some prisoners becoming increasingly disengaged in education.’

Technology-based initiatives have been launched within the custodial estate across the UK such as the introduction of in-cell PIN phones and self-service kiosks enabling prisoners to complete administrative tasks digitally (Palmer et al., 2020). Although these new initiatives can encourage prisoners to use some digital skills – such as booking appointments on the self-service kiosks – it does not support education practitioners in utilising the full power of digital learning. In my experience as a tutor, I have found that these hard-to-reach learners are not given the digital skills to become fully digitally literate before reintegration into society because of the lack of digital access.

For many people, digital skills are deep-rooted in everyday activities such as booking appointments, banking and communicating with others (Palmer et al., 2020). The Coronavirus lockdown has emphasised the importance of technology within education where educational facilitators have been encouraged to provide a creative virtual classroom environment. However, it is my belief that this emphasis highlights the failings of current custodial technology where prison learners have been unable to access the full capacity of digital learning. There needs to be a rapid increase in contemporary digital access for prisoners to enable custodial education to meet the digital needs of these hard-to-reach learners to support their reintegration into a digital society.  


Coates, S. (2016). Unlocking potential: A review of education in prison. Ministry of Justice.  

Kelsey, D., & Taylor-Beswick, A., (2016). The learning wheel: A model of digital pedagogy. Critical Publishing.

Palmer, E., Hatcher, R., & Tonkin, M. (2020). Evaluation of digital technology in prisons. Ministry of Justice.  

Prisoner Learning Alliance (2020, July 8). New PLA briefing: Digital technology in prisons.

Scott, D. (2018). Learning technology: A handbook for FE teachers and assessors. Critical Publishing.

Stoll, L., Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Wallace, M., & Thomas, S. (2006). Professional learning communities: A review of the literature. Journal of Educational Change, 7(4), 221–258.

Taylor, C. (2014). Brain cells. Prisoners’ Education Trust.

The Open University. (2021). Virtual campus.

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