Digital innovation catalyses learning – a case study

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Dr Jo Metcalf, University of Hull | 09 March 2021

Learner with Sociology textbook

Dr Jo Metcalf, Senior Lecturer in American History and Culture at the University of Hull, is part of the Learning Together Network.

She recently delivered a new connected short course on ‘US & UK Prison Culture: Redemption and Resistance’ at HMP Hull, digitally supported by chromebooks through Learning Together’s partnership with Coracle Inside.

Read more about the partnership here

When the pandemic hit, I knew the opportunities we provide through Learning Together to students at the University of Hull, where I work, and students at HMP Hull, would, in some ways, be more important than ever. But I also knew we wouldn’t be able to meet in the ways we would do normally. Following the Learning Together Network’s ‘ThinkLet’ initiative, I wondered whether there might be a way of adapting the format of those resources and stitching a series of such resources together to create a course.

That germ of an idea became a new 8-week course on ‘US & UK Prison Culture’, which we are just about to finish delivering through chromebooks and correspondence to a cohort of 12 university students and 11 prison-based learners (the former were primarily composed of final year American Studies students and a handful of PhDs).

My aim for the course was that it would equip students to analyse a range of US prison culture texts (from film to poetry) in order to consider the complexity of the US and UK prison systems in the 20th /21st centuries and the historical and sociological contexts of both countries more broadly. In simple terms, we use prison culture as lightning rods for discussion about race, class, citizenship, and in so doing engage with ‘life’ skills (including hope, desistance, persuasion and humanity).

While university students accessed course resources via the University of Hull’s Canvas VLE system, prison-based students accessed the same materials through chromebooks with a Learning Together interface, which also included Learning Together evaluation measures (the ‘EPIC scale’). Text materials were combined with video content from guest speakers, which I hope energised and engaged the students. The speakers included a human rights lawyer who works with people detained in Guantanamo, a criminologist specialising in desistance, and a Hull-based novelist with powers to persuade!

The design of the course required some significant pedgagogical thought. We needed to inspire and challenge all learners to complete the course and engage in productive ways, without being present in HMP Hull’s chapel to do so and without traditional online interactive facilities. Much of my ongoing research impact work has involved querying public perceptions of (ex) prisoners and to do this remotely without the physical act of learning together, necessitated consideration. The literal ‘learning together’ component  of the course is the swapping of portfolios between university and prison-based students in order to ‘feed forward’ on one another’s work, though the course as a whole was planned to build a sense of community by encouraging a keen awareness between the students of each other, as peers who are studying together, albeit at a distance.

In light of Covid restrictions on gathering groups together within prisons and prison staff shortages, there were some challenges in getting the devices distributed and students properly inducted, but our colleagues in Hull worked their magic. Resources and templates from the Learning Together Network Toolkit supported the process.

So what have I learned and what do I think my students have learned? For myself, the experience of creating and running this course has made me reflect on the importance of not underestimating the power that such learning experiences can generate, even if necessarily, for the moment, learners are at a distance. There are creative ways of building community using technology and correspondence. I’m keen to think more ambitiously about this. Students have already shared reflections about their experiences of the course that include:

‘[the course] has opened my mind to things I may have dismissed before’

‘it is easy to become complacent […] it is important not to stand back when fighting injustices’

‘this has made me seriously reconsider my views of prison and those who reside within it’

In January, we will reflect carefully on full feedback from the students, including data from completed EPIC measures, to plan some next steps for partnership working between the University of Hull and HMP Hull. We want to continue to deliver meaningful learning opportunities for students inside and outside of prison together.

Beyond this, we very much hope to contribute to a future Learning Together Network event about digital pedagogy and innovation that is currently in the planning, and share learning from this pilot across the Network to support other partnerships to adapt to current circumstances as a result of Covid-19. We also hope to share learning with HMPPS colleagues as they take forward digital innovation work nationally.

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