Will wonders ever SiSE?: Designing for Students in Secure Environments

A plant grows from a brick wall, surrounded by barbed wire

by Hayley Johns

During my work with the Open University so far, I’ve been really privileged to work with students from all walks of life. One key part of the OU student community, and a new one for my own practice, is students in secure environments. The OU’s work reaches over 200 prisons and secure hospital units around the country, and students who are studying from these institutions can take undergraduate modules across all four faculties (FASS, FBL, STEM and WELS), as well as Access modules for those who are new to higher education or haven’t studied at university level for some time.

My interest in SiSE stems from working as an Associate Lecturer (AL) at the OU, before I joined the Learning Design team earlier this year. Last academic year, in 2021-2022, a student from a secure environment joined my tutor group. I think it’s fair to say that this was the start of a steep learning curve for both of us. He had no access to the online systems or materials which have come to characterise the OU way of working in the digital age, so his prison team had received printed module materials for him work from. Similarly, his first assessment was hand-written and scanned, posted to the OU by the prison team. Then, just as we were starting to find our feet with a SiSE way of working, partway through the academic year, my student’s sentence ended and he was released. This new chapter presented its own unique challenges; while he was able to submit TMAs 02 and 03 through the eTMA system in the usual way, he still had no access to the module website or online rooms, as a condition of his release. This meant that he was still relying largely on the printed materials provided to him at the start of the course, although with continued support from the Community Support team, who carry out post-release checks. The final TMA, a live, interactive speaking assessment, unfortunately proved a bridge too far, and the student left the course shortly before completion.

Distance learning students sometimes report feelings of loneliness and isolation during their studies, and this could be even more so the case for SiSE, who are disconnected from the online community of fellow students. This can lead to a drop in motivation in some students, even after release – in my anecdotal example above, the student on my module left the course shortly before his TMA04 interactive speaking assessment, just weeks from the end of the course, specifying a lack of motivation to continue studying. This experience may have been a familiar one for SiSE; looking at retention data across four Level 1 introductory modules, of the students in secure environments who withdrew from their studies, 61% cited personal reasons for doing so. Although we don’t know for sure whether these students experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation, we can infer that they encountered personal challenges in their studies that they ultimately found insurmountable.

So what can we do to help? To mitigate this sometimes disjointed process, where a student lacks contact with their peers and has such a different learning experience to the ones we in Learning Design help to build on a daily basis with our module teams? I spoke to the SiSE Accessibility team to find out more.

Firstly, I wanted to know how Learning Design and module teams can work together to embed support for SiSE into module production, so that this support translates effectively from production into presentation, when the module goes live to students.

The SiSE Accessibility team advised that the best way would be to plan activities accordingly – as we’ve mentioned, most SiSE have no access to computers, although some students can spend limited time on Learn7, a specialist virtual learning environment (VLE) or virtual campus for use in secure environments. The team’s recommendation, therefore, would be to think about how each planned activity on a module would work in an offline format from the very outset of design, rather than working backwards later to adapt online resources.

For example, a business and management module included a task in which students had to use Twitter to reflect on and communicate their learning on the module. While a really interesting activity, and one that was highly relevant to the module, which focuses on communication in the world of business, it wasn’t accessible to SiSE students. The SiSE Accessibility team worked with the module team to tailor the activity to a SiSE audience, taking the activity offline and moving students’ 140-character reflections to a journal which they would share directly with their tutor, rather than posting on social media.

Aside from the question of offline study, I was also interested in what the SiSE Accessibility team might wish that Learning Design and module teams knew about SiSE or would factor into module design.

A key point to keep in mind is that, while the OU has a contract with the Ministry of Justice to provide education for students in prisons, this doesn’t mean that students’ fees are paid for. SiSE don’t receive grants to fund their studies – they’re full fee-paying students, just like anyone else studying with the OU. Of course, then, they should be getting an equally high quality of education and a comparable experience; it’s not enough to treat their learning experiences as an afterthought, or something to be adapted in a rush retrospectively.

In putting this piece together, I learnt so much about the work that the SiSE Accessibility team do for students studying in secure environments, and the process has given me some really nourishing food for thought as to how we can improve and inform our practice across the board – in Learning Design, within module teams, and as Associate Lecturers too. As the Accessibility team pointed out, the measures we take in production will improve the experience for SiSE, but accessibility measures like these will benefit all students – it’s truly a win-win.

If you’re looking for more guidance for module teams, you can find lots of helpful information in Learning Design’s excellent top tips on how to engage SiSE in learning experience and assessment. Already digested the top tips and ready to talk to someone about designing with SiSE in mind? You can get in touch with the SiSE Accessibility team at sise-accessibility@open.ac.uk and Learning Design at LDS-LearningDesign@open.ac.uk.