Learning Together: A case study

Learning Together is a national educational initiative from the University of Cambridge, bringing together students who are currently under criminal justice supervision and students who are at university, providing opportunities for both groups of students to study at higher education level together, learning with and from each other, often within the prison environment.

Learning Together seeks to build transformative communities of learning across and beyond the walls of higher education and criminal justice institutions; communities in which everyone can live out positive futures, including through moving away from committing criminal offences. Learning opportunities extend to a wide range of disciplines, including creative writing, criminology, literary criticism, law, maths, modern languages and philosophy and ethics. The mission is 'to provide evidence-led and robustly evaluated intellectually ambitious and individually, institutionally and socially transformative learning opportunities through partnership working between higher education and criminal justice organisations'.

Learning Together featured on BBC Radio4 'Law in Action' (14 March 2019)

Learning Together featured on BBC Radio4 'Today' (12 Oct 2018)

In the academic year 2017-18, Coracle and Learning Together piloted the introduction of non-networked chromebooks across three Learning Together partnership sites – HMPs Grendon, Warren Hill and Whitemoor.

The chromebooks were used to support and enhance the delivery of three different courses – criminology at HMP Grendon, law at HMP Warren Hill and philosophy and ethics at HMP Whitemoor.

Chromebooks were issued for in-cell possession to all prison based students who were selected to participate. At course recruitment stage, prison staff took account of the use of Chromebooks as part of internal sifting processes, but contingency plans were in place for paper-based learning for any student who merited a place but could not (on grounds of risk) have access to a Chromebook. We did not encounter any situation where the paper-based system was necessary in this pilot. All chromebooks were issued in possession so that students could make full use of them at times when they were locked in their rooms.

All students described how the Chromebooks and the digital learning platform (Coracle Inside) had enhanced learning, with video and audio materials being particularly welcome, bringing the subject to life, increasing the accessibility of more difficult texts, and supporting the engagement of students with a broader range of learning styles and specific learning differences (including especially dyslexia).

Careful scaffolding and support was needed (including through an initial training session and ad hoc individual support sessions) to ensure students were not overwhelmed by the technology. We observed many students helping each other to navigate the platform and troubleshoot, and we noticed how this re-distributed power dynamics in the learning space in helpful ways. By the end of the course, students expressed confidence in the devices and described new (or refreshed) technological skills.

Many prison based students talked about how having the Chromebooks expressed that they were trusted by prison staff and the institution, and that their development was being taken seriously. For some, the Chromebooks were a source of positive escapism from life on the wings – a way of keeping busy and away from negative circumstances or influences on wings, and a reminder of normality and home. For others, the challenge of learning how to use the devices prompted new conversations and connections with family members, with the mother of one of our students, for example, buying the same Chromebook as her son so that they could learn together.

These experiences boosted students' self-worth and created a sense of hope and a sense of mutuality, respect and connectedness between prison based students and the prison staff who were involved in the pilot. Students especially welcomed the electronic library facility on the chromebooks which they could navigate independently to broaden and deepen their learning, in ways that promoted agency and autonomy.

Beyond strengthened relationships between students, we also saw significant strengthening of relationships between prison staff colleagues and students. The Chromebooks generated no negative security reports across any three of the pilot sites.