I have written about the i-Pathways project and its extremely successful use in corrections’ education using an Internet-connected model to provide computer-based instruction to classrooms in 33 facilities throughout the Illinois Department of Corrections. We have since expanded to a county facility in Maryland using that same model and have begun using a new delivery model called Oasis.
The connected-classroom model has worked verywell both in Illinois and Maryland, but we know that there are facilities that are just not ready or able to use an Internet connected-classroom model. After speaking with correctional educators in Oregon and Washington in July, I realized that there indeed was a need for a completely different model that did not require sophisticated technology set-up, rather something that could just be plug and play. I owe a special thanks to Frank Martin at the Oregon Youth Authority and Brian Walsh at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges for the inspiration that started the i-Pathways team and the Center for the Application of Information Technologies at Western Illinois University on a different solution.
During the fall of 2015, our instructional technology experts have been working on a new i-Pathways deployment model for corrections (and other locations with no robust Internet connection) that does not require an Internet connection, but provides the same user experience; we call it the i-Pathways Oasis Project.
Very simply, we put all of the i-Pathways content and technical structure on a very small device that also serves as a wireless hotspot. The Oasis device creates its own local wireless network. It does not connect to the Internet; all of the content is housed right on the device. Students connect to Oasis via wireless enabled devices: desktops/laptops/Chromebooks/tablets. As it cannot connect to the Internet, there are no security risks related to Internet access. You plug it in, turn it on, and access the content from your wireless-enabled device.
We developed it, tested for functionality and started a pilot with the McDonough County jail in rural Illinois. We chose a small jail for two reasons:
- they typically do not have a large technical staff to manage secure network connections to the Internet, and
- they have a need. Most small jails do not have instructional staff working with inmates, and the inmates are not there for extended periods (typically). Plus, the local sheriff, Rick VanBrooker was very interested in creating an instructional program to serve those he was housing. Because it is a low population rural county, he knew some of those he was charged with didn’t have a high school diploma, and he wanted to try and make a difference, even for the short amount of time they were in his care.
For us, we were challenged by both the technical challenge of making i-Pathways function in a stand-alone remote deployment with very little technical support on-site, and more importantly, deploying in a facility with no instructional staff available. Could students go through the content on their own? This has not been our model with i-Pathways, though we were confident in the instructional flow of content, we have always considered a teacher-facilitated model to be the ideal deployment. But sometimes things are not ideal and you provide an opportunity because the only other option is to do nothing. As the sheriff said, “all they do all day is watch bad TV, let’s give them something to do, let’s try this.” So we did.
We installed the Oasis device in the jail, though “installed,” meant that we placed the device on a counter in the staff kitchen that was adjacent to the room that was going to serve as the classroom. The sheriff bought a $400 Chromebook at Best Buy, and then started class. He decided that as the students would be working mostly unsupervised, that only one student at a time would access i-Pathways; that was for facility security.
The student started off with great confidence, they began in Language Arts. We checked in after about four days to see how things were going; well they had stopped, the student was frustrated. Our i-Pathways instructional team met with the inmate and asked what was going on, why did they stop? Well, the student didn’t pass the lesson learning checks the first time and just thought that they couldn’t do it, they weren’t smart enough. The inmate said that they had always been told that they were no good and would never amount to anything; so they assumed that they were just unable to learn.
A teacher in the classroom would recognize what was going on in this kind of situation and remediate, but there was no teacher here. We told the inmate that oftentimes, you don’t pass the learning checks the first time through, but the learning checks provide feedback, completing the instructional loop and making it possible to build on the experience to achieve the intended learning goals. We also talked about taking notes as a way to better remember and understand the content. After this conversation, the student started anew in the content; two weeks later they had completed the Basic Writing and Language Arts modules (42 lessons). And they took notes, a lot of notes.
The total time spent in the Language Arts module was three weeks. The sheriff was anxious to get this inmate an opportunity to take the Language Arts module of the GED test; the student passed. It worked!
The i-Pathways team learned that we needed to create a module for students, particularly for those working by themselves or with little instructional supervision. We needed a module that coached them on how to approach the content and how not to get discouraged. This module includes video of teachers talking to the student about how to take notes, the experiences of other students have gone through using the content, and general encouragement.
This is a story about one local jail, a sheriff with a vision to help, and correctional staff that volunteered to assist with the technology, inmate transportation (to a GED testing facility) and security related to running a classroom. And more importantly, its about an opportunity for a a person who had made some mistakes and wanted to begin turning their life around. Education can be the ladder to success for those incarcerated. We know that from the Rand report that came out in 2013, and we know it firsthand from our own experiences watching our students succeed.
We see this model working in small jails or correctional facilities, or in very remote locations with poor Internet access. The Oasis model could be used with instructional staff if they were available, or even volunteers in facilities that cannot afford instructional staff. We, at i-Pathways are working to expand our toolbox to provide resources for the wide variety of deployment scenarios out there.