Open Polytechnic

Open Polytechnic: E-learning in prisons

We built a digital literacy course for adult prisoners. Our delivery partner was the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, the prison operators were the Department of Corrections and Serco, and the audience were prisoners under sentence or on remand in New Zealand.

Open Polytechnic

Goals: increase confidence, reduce reoffending

The goal of this project was to teach prisoners to better read and write, which would be a great individual achievement for them and could lead to things like applying for a driver’s license or a wider range of potential jobs. They would also have picked up some digital skills as the course is delivered on a tablet. Learning is self-led, putting the control into the users’ hands and avoiding the classroom setting, which had not always been a positive experience for this group of people.

Teaching literacy and numeracy skills to prisoners has a huge impact on their lives and the wider community. Initial screening for literacy and numeracy by the Human Rights Commission indicated that up to 90% of prisoners have low literacy skills and 80% low numeracy skills (compared to 51% of the general population). Ex-prisoners involved in educational programmes are more likely to be employed than others, and their recidivism and re-imprisonment rates are lower. Reduced reoffending has a huge impact on the costs of the prison population (over 10,000 in 2017), which is approximately $100,000 per person per year.

Open Polytechnic

Test early and often

One of the key challenges of the project was testing. We needed to build something that worked better than the traditional classroom methods, and we needed to test concepts early and often. Testing was performed inside securities facilities, beginning with paper prototypes and powerpoint presentations, and delivered repeatedly as our solution evolved. This had an added benefit of winning the trust of the prison operators as it built up an understanding of the wider needs of administering a secure environment and the context of providing educational opportunities within it.

We discovered that a lot of the target audience hadn’t used computers or tablets before, so the standard swipe gestures confused them. Pushing a button worked best as it made users feel more in control. This made the navigation design seem somewhat retro compared to modern tablet apps, but it gave the users confidence, as they were less likely to make mistakes.

Open Polytechnic

Working together to create educational content

Before Ackama started on the project there was significant separation between the curriculum team and the technical team. We worked closely with the Open Polytechnic’s educational content team and used agile practices to help them identify their requirements without having to be confident in digital technology.

This was achieved by generating user stories and breaking out the high level concept into many smaller components. As they designed and built the course and got feedback from the bi-weekly releases, they were able to change the delivery order of features so that we could provide them with the most highly valuable functionality first. This approach meant we could debate and discuss what we were going to build directly with Open Polytechnic. We encouraged the Product Owner to make changes in the roadmap and she learned to make effective trade-offs to maximise the value of the learning content.

Open Polytechnic

Issues of security

For this project we didn’t just build a custom application, but custom hardware as well. We needed to build a tablet that would meet high security standards, such as not having glass that could shatter or be used as a weapon, and not having four or more batteries (the requisite number for breaking locks). We partnered with a local tech company to license a custom Android Operating System and custom manufactured devices from China to meet the Department of Correction’s requirements.

Open Polytechnic 


“My missus wanted to know who wrote the letter home and it was me.”

The target for success was that by the end prisoners would be able to read at a level that would allow them to participate in everyday life. We are proud to say that the results exceeded all our expectations, with reading levels jumping beyond what the previous scale had indicated was possible.

The prisoners made excellent students and worked through the content at a rapid pace. A significant number of them completed the self-directed course within a week, which gave both them and us a huge sense of accomplishment.

Additional benefits include the fact that the tablets can be reused, which is cheaper than printing out the previously used paper courses. The digital channel which we developed to help prisoners learn can also be applied to other areas, such as studying for a driver’s license, and the e-learning literacy course could be used to help New Zealand adults outside of prisons who cannot read at a day-to-day functioning level.