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HE and distance learning in prison

Anne Pike, Researcher, Open University: Summary of Research

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Anne Pike
9 May 2010

PhD (2010-2013): Investigating the role of prison-based higher-level distance learning in resettlement.

I just can’t wait to get out and use the skills that I’ve learnt and try and put this behind me and I shouldn’t say this about jail and it sounds a cliché but jail is where I’ve found myself

(Ethan in Pike (2010b, p59)) 

Ethan (a pseudonym) is fairly typical of adult males who are incarcerated. He comes from a socio-economically disadvantaged background where crime is a way of life and school exclusions and truanting are commonplace (Social Exclusion Unit 2002). He had completed his GCSE’s at school though he had “done quite badly” and had attempted a college course but that “had fizzled out”. The series of events which led Ethan to prison is beyond the scope of this research. What is important here is that at the time of his interview, Ethan had just completed his fourth Open University (OU) course through distance learning in prison and was hoping to be released within the year.  As is often the case, he originally started the higher level learning in order to use his time in prison usefully and keep away from the ‘bad’ elements of prison (McGuiness, 2000; Pike 2009) but, clearly, he now has a positive perception of what education in prison has done for him. He has been empowered by his knowledge and gained self-esteem from his success as a student. Some might say this learning has been transformational (Wilson and Reuss, 2000) or transformative (Mezirow 1997). However, what difference has it really made? How has it changed him as a person and what role will it play in his resettlement? Will it improve his chances of gaining suitable employment or help him to be a better citizen? This research is inspired by stories such as Ethan’s, many of which have been gathered personally by the author in two previous research projects (Pike, 2010 a, b) and more than 10 years of being involved in education for inmates, either as a teacher, manager or inspector.  Other previous research (Costelloe (2003), Hughes (2007), Reuss (1997)) which has investigated the transformational qualities of academic learning in prison has done so, mostly, from a motivational perspective, focusing on benefits and barriers to study and perceptions of the prison-based learning experience. There is therefore very little understanding of perceptions of personal change in the longer-term, in resettlement, or how perceptions might change in life after prison. Social and societal perspectives of transformational learning for the ‘student-inmates’ (Pike 2010b) are also currently inadequately understood. Grounded in the broader context of adult education and situated learning, this research is a cross-disciplinary, mixed-method, investigation of the role of prison-based higher level (post-compulsory) distance learning (PHDL) which has taken place in the very specific context of prison.

Costelloe, A. (2003), Third level education in Irish prisons: Who participates and why? (Unpublished Doctoral thesis). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Hughes, E. (2007) Thinking inside the box: British prisoner-students’ experiences of distance learning, PhD Thesis, Birmingham, University of Central England

McGuinness, P. (2000) Dealing with time: factors that influence prisoners to participate in prison education programs in Prison(er) Education ed. Wilson, D. and Reuss, A. (2000), Winchester, Waterside Press.

Mezirow (1997), Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice, New directions for adult and continuing education, No. 74.

Pike, A (2009) Developing Online Communities to Support Distance Learning in Secure Environments, Proceedings from the 2nd International Multi-conference Society, Cybernetics and Informatics, Vol.1 pp13-16; Orlando, USA. Online at ORO

Pike, A. (2010a) COLMSCT CETL Final Report: Building bridges across the digital divide for HE students in prison, Online at (accessed 15-10-10)

Pike, A. (2010b) Dissertation for Masters in Research (Educational Technology): Investigating technology-supported learning in prison, Milton Keynes, OU (in press)

Reuss, A. (1997) Higher Education and Personal Change in Prisoners, PhD Thesis, Leeds, University of Leeds.

Social Exclusion Unit (2002) Reducing Re-offending by Ex-prisoners. London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.Social.

Wilson, D. and Reuss, A. (2000) Prison(er) Education: Stories of Change and Transformation, Winchester, Waterside Press.


MRes research (2009-2010): Investigating technology supported learning for the HE and distance learner in prison. 

The internet and its new technologies provide many opportunities to support distance learning but the pace of change has led to a ‘digital divide’ between those who have the access, skills and desire to use new technologies and those who do not. There are, however, up to 4000 distance learning inmates in English prisons who have restricted access to technologies and for whom the ‘digital divide’ may be even wider. This research employed a partial ethnographic approach to obtain multiple perspectives of what technology is available to distance learning inmates, how they access and use that technology to support learning, and what are the attitudes towards technology-supported distance learning. Data was collected over two days within one prison cluster in England which included three prisons housing adult male inmates. 10 student-inmates and 6 staff participated in the in-depth, semi-structured interviews and additional data was collected through participant observation, informal conversations and document analysis. Through a grounded theory style analysis of access, skills and attitude, three themes emerged: physical environment, institutional visions and student identity. Findings suggest the prison is a closed social world where the distance-learning student-inmates show great determination in maintaining an essential student identity. However the conflicting institutional visions of the education stakeholders and the controlled physical environment negatively impact on technology-supported distance learning. Except in the most ‘progressive’ prison with a learning culture, the student-inmates perceive very little choice in what technology they use for learning. In the ‘working’ prison with the regimented work culture, student-inmates perceive insufficient time or space for learning. Having access to a computer and a printer which are attached to each other is a bonus and the idea of internet access appears inconceivable to some. In this environment the ‘digital divide’ appears more like a 'digital void'.

Keywords: distance learning, prison education, technology-supported learning, digital divide, identity.


Teaching Fellowship (2007-2009): See COLMSCT CETL Final Report: Building bridges across the digital divide for HE students in prison

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