The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
In keeping with the ethos ‘open to all’, The Open University (OU) has provided higher education opportunities to students in secure environments (SiSE) for over 40 years, currently reaching over 150 secure environments (Open University, 2020). Many such students have less than ideal educational backgrounds, for example, many SiSe students have experienced a history of disrupted education, with 60% of adult prisoners having been suspended/temporarily excluded from school (MacFarlane and Pike, 2018). SiSe students who enroll with the OU often have low prior levels of academic qualifications and tend to start their studies at Access or L1 modules. However, many SiSe students do not complete their qualifications; the reasons for this are multifactorial, and may include confidence and competence within their subject, general study skills, in-unit restrictions or financial concerns. This may have significant long-term implications in terms of their future employability.
Students studying with the OU whilst in prison have access to an OU tutor and may take part in telephone or face-to-face tutorials, depending on the secure unit, module, tutor availability and level of study. Such sessions are tailored to the particular needs of the student. However, such contact time is limited, and whilst it facilitates the development of tutor-student relationship, there is frequently limited time or facilities available within secure units for students to participate in peer-to-peer learning or to feel part of a wider ‘OU student’ community. Furthermore, once a module has finished, typically in May/June, with an examination or an EMA, students have no further interaction with the University until registration and commencement of the next module, in October.
This project builds on experiences from a previous eSTEeM project providing Online Journal Clubs (OJC) to OU students (Moorman and New, 2020), where students reported positively on participating in online journal clubs, and how OJC events made them feel part of a community. Our findings from OJC also indicated that students developed key skills and gained confidence as a result of participating in OJC events.
Whilst some secure units make use of Virtual Campus, which allows students in secure units to access a ‘cut-down’ version of the internet, it was apparent that this is not always available for all students, and hence SiSe were not able to participate in any OJC events in the same format as non-SiSe students. In this project, we developed a proof-of-concept model for providing Journal Clubs within secure units. In this setting, we aimed to provide face-to-face Journal Clubs, to not only eliminate ICT difficulties or restrictions, but also because we felt that face-to-face would facilitate more direct interaction amongst this group of students. At this point it is important to note that a key concept embedded within this project is that Journal Club events involve working with SiSe students, rather than on them.
We believe that face-to-face Journal Clubs for SiSE students offer an enrichment opportunity and may facilitate peer-peer learning and the development of a sense of community amongst participating students. In turn, this may have implications for motivation and retention. Furthermore, in agreement with Pike (2015) students who feel part of a learning community ‘identify with a ‘positive, pro-social student identity’ which may have wider implications for ‘in-unit’ behaviour and recidivism. We suggest that Journal Clubs may provide the opportunity for SiSE students to develop key study skills, which will help their transition through academic levels. Participation may also develop employability skills, including communication and interpersonal skills, critical awareness and a proactive approach to self-development.
Following consultation with the Open University SiSe Team, we planned delivery of a “Summer Series” of Journal Club events, at HMP Bure, Norwich, Norfolk, HMP Whatton in Bingham, Nottinghamshire and HMP Oakwood, Featherstone, West Midlands. All three prisons are Category C, male prisons. This project was advertised specifically as a “Summer Series” to develop an informal ‘catchy’ hook, to arouse curiosity, and because the events were planned to occur during the main OU presentation gap, between June-September. By holding the events within this period, the project aimed to help students reflect and make use of their prior study and motivate students to progress to the next module. The longer-term vision was to assess the model, with a view to calendar-wide roll out.
All three prisons have learning opportunities embedded in prison activities and offer a variety of programs to prepare prisoners for their lives after release. Additionally, all three are well supported by educational departments and have a large number of students studying Open University Access, level 1 and level 2 modules.
The project aims to identify any challenges providing such events, student perceptions of events, and specific student requirements.