Modernising Justice: The future of the VC

25 Jun 2014

At this year’s Govnet Modernising Justice conference: Technology, Innovation and Efficiency (24 June 2014), for the first time there was a real focus on how ICT can improve rehabilitation. In particular, Prisoners' Education Trust welcomed a speech by Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons commending its recent report Through the Gateway: How Computers can Transform Rehabilitation with the Prison Reform Trust calling for prisoners to be given secure access to the internet to support their rehabilitation. The event also had an interesting session on ‘The Virtual Campus’ (VC), led by Mark Taylor, National VC Manager, focusing on the potential for ICT solutions to improve people’s opportunities to learn and get ready to return to society, as he says: “It is an important part of their resettlement for them to have these skills.”

Benefits of the VC

The VC is a secure intranet system which is designed to enable prisoners to study, look for jobs and improve their ICT skills. Approx 30,000 prisoners and 2,000 prison staff are currently registered users, based in 120 sites. Some of the benefits include enabling prisoners to send messages to external tutors, do online learning, sit exams virtually and get the results immediately, have a copy of everything they do stored on a ‘cloud’ which they can easily access if they are transferred to different prisons or released.

“We need to stop the revolving door, I see the VC as key to the transforming rehabilitation agenda” says Mr Taylor.

Through the Gateway

However, rather than allowing prisoners to access the internet directly, the system screens material from other sites and uploads it as pdfs. In PET and PRT’s report Through the Gateway, we highlighted some of the issues with this, such as information becoming out of date, and recommended secure access to the internet to make users’ experience more interactive and engaging.

Future plans

It was therefore welcome to hear about some of the VC’s new developments. NOMS is currently working to establish access to Ja.NET, an established academic e-network used by universities across England, meaning that in the future learners could potentially access MOOCS and MOODLS and a wide range of free courses. It will also help improve broadband speeds, which is one of the key infrastructure challenges of the VC.

A woman in the audience, working as Head of Learning and Skills in a prison, asked: “In my prison we’ve got the VC in the resettlement area of the prison but no one has time to use it because it takes too long. We’ve got the buy-in and opportunity but it is constraints of the establishment making it difficult.” Mr Taylor agreed that one of the biggest problems with the VC is slow internet networks in prisons and he said that individual prisons need to invest in their own connectivity.

There are also plans to pilot a ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ (VLE) with the Open University. Both of these developments will give users a more realistic experience of the internet, as they enable access to these websites, however because NOMS has to cross-reference every page to ensure they are secure and appropriate for prisoners to access it is a huge undertaking to do this across the web.

Mr Taylor does have other ideas to develop the VC in other ways, such as by offering remote delivery of higher education with access to virtual classrooms, getting more video content to make it less static and piloting online interventions in other areas, such as virtual drug and alcohol support sessions. He also believes there is potential for family and relationship interventions also, which was one of the key recommendations in Through the Gateway.