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The Open University has been providing world-class education to students in prison for over 40 years. As of March 2019, there were approximately 1,800 students on more than 130 courses in 150 prisons. Some students in secure environments (SiSE) have access to the OU’s Virtual Campus (intranet site) and printed materials, depending on the facilities available at their prison; however, independent study materials found through the Library are not available via these routes. Students were therefore reliant on their personal tutors or educational officers to obtain independent study material for them with varying results.
To overcome this obstacle, in late 2018 the OU Students Association (OUSA) suggested a student volunteer scheme whereby the OU student in prison would send an anonymised request detailing what information resources they were looking for and a volunteer student would then carry out the research on their behalf. The student volunteers would all be experienced students studying at the OU who would receive training from the SiSE Team, OUSA and the Library before they answered research enquiries. Ongoing library support would also be provided for the volunteers. All those involved managed to get the service up and running in just 3 months, being piloted back in January 2019 with students in prison studying at Level 3 and above. There was rapid take up of the service, with 27 requests being received within the first 4 weeks!
Due to the huge success of the pilot, it was decided to provide the service as part of the Library’s business as usual and extend it to include SiSE studying at Level 2. The service has now been in place for 3 years and, in total, has received 210 requests! Considering there was a prison-wide lockdown last year, this is an impressive number and is a huge testament to the collaborative effort of the teams involved, including the OUSA, SiSE Team, Library staff, Level 2 and above students, and Warehouse Team. Feedback from the volunteer students and students in prison indicated how much the service is valued. One SiSE commented: “Thank you for sending out this new service for OU study research. I am very grateful that this is a viable support to my learning. I wish you the very best of health wealth, joy and spirit and look forward to receiving the response to my requests.”
Student volunteers were particularly appreciative of the training sessions they received from the Library, commenting that they would have benefited from attending these to support their own studies as it improved their search skills.
Once a larger cohort of students have used the service, the Library plans to carry out further analysis to determine the true impact of the service. All teams involved are also involved in ongoing discussions around how they can help SiSE to develop their digital skills, which are essential to function effectively within the work and personal environment, without having open access to the internet.
If you’d like to learn more about how the OU is supporting students in secure environments, visit the SiSE Website. The OUSA will be recruiting for new student volunteers this summer, so if you might be interested in taking part, you can either sign up to our volunteer newsletter or keep an eye on the volunteering opportunities page.