Students in remote areas cut off from the internet and even those on the inside of prison cells could have access to the same digital materials as their urban classmates after a groundbreaking trial being undertaken by the University of Southern Queensland.
Dr Helen Farley and Dr Angela Murphy from USQ’s Australian Digital Futures Institute (ADFI) were successful in securing $217,000 in funding from the recent round of grants provided by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT).
The project, funded under the Innovation and Development Program, is a partnership between ADFI, Open Access College and ICT Services at USQ, together with Serco Asia Pacific, who operate the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre near Gatton, and Queensland Corrective Services.
This award was the only one awarded to USQ in this round of funding and was one of only three awarded in the whole of Queensland.
The aim of the project is to develop an alternative approach to online study that will widen access to higher education for students without reliable internet access or even for those with no internet access at all.
Dr Farley said the project would be trialled with 25 incarcerated students enrolled in the Tertiary Preparation Program run by USQ’s Open Access College in semester two of this year.
It is based on an innovative extension to the current open-source learning management system (LMS) Moodle, which forms the basis of USQ’s Study Desk — the online portal from which students access course materials.
However, under this trial, a Stand-Alone Moodle (SAM) will be developed, meaning students won’t need to connect to the internet.
Dr Farley said this was the next stage in USQ’s long and successful history of catering to incarcerated students.
“Tertiary education provides prisoners the opportunity to re-enter society with an education and professional qualification,” she said.
“Each year USQ through its Tertiary Preparation Program provides a stepping stone into university for more than 300 enrolled prisoners with a growing number wanting to take up a university degree.”
“There is no other university preparatory program functioning at this level anywhere in Australia.”
But Dr Farley said with this new technology students studying from inside prison walls or from remote areas would have an equivalent study experience to those with good access to the internet.
“Those students have previously relied on paper-based course materials,” she said.
“But they will now benefit from the resources, activities and support available to students who are able to access the internet, thereby improving the quality of the student learning experience.
“Students will also be able to develop the digital literacy skills needed in higher education or the workplace.”
Queensland Corrective Services Commissioner Marlene Morison said that pathways leading from study to employment have been shown to reduce reoffending and therefore can benefit the individual, their family and the broader community.
“We are very interested in the USQ project as it provides a very real and practical way of supporting prisoners to increase employability through university studies while still ensuring the necessary restrictions of the prison environment”.
ADFI Executive Director Professor Mike Keppell said project outcomes would have significant benefits for the Higher Education sector.
“This project will address the challenge of providing students without internet access the opportunity to benefit from the advantages afforded by digital technologies in learning and teaching,” Professor Keppell said.
“As universities become increasingly digital, those students having difficulty accessing web-based course materials and activities are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with higher education.”
The project builds on a trial being run at the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre since July 2012.
Incarcerated students have been using a prototype of the SAM LMS with course readings on eBook readers.
“While this trial is for incarcerated students at this stage, we’re very excited by the prospects of deploying the project into other environments, such as rural or remote communities with little or no internet access — anywhere in the world,” Dr Farley said.
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Jim Campbell, USQ Media, +617 4631 2977, firstname.lastname@example.org