This week, the education technology community is gathering in San Diego, CA for the 2016 ASU GSV Summit, a conference that the New York Times calls a “must-attend event.” There’s one group of students who will get very little airtime during these three days — and who generally get little airtime at all: young people attending school in locked correctional facilities.
Educators, innovators, and investors tout the power of technology to personalize learning, provide access to real-world experience, engage students, and accelerate skill development — four things that incarcerated students need most and get least. Most schools in secure facilities have no internet access of any kind, and some of them do not allow students to use computers at all.* For anyone who’s seen the power of good technology used well, the contrast in these settings is heartbreaking.
There are good reasons to be cautious about deploying technology resources in secure facilities. The concerns holding up technology integration are real and serious, but they’re not trump cards.
At the ground level, there are infrastructure issues: many secure facilities are located in rural areas and currently lack the literal bandwidth to support modern technology. And hardware remains expensive and easily broken — whether accidentally or intentionally. These are expensive problems to solve, but in 2016, they can no longer be put off for a later day. First, the E-Rate program goes a long way towards supporting improved access, and second, using technology in way that feels meaningful and valuable might be the best way to protect it from damage.
But once that’s solved, there remain “safety and security” concerns — the backbone of custodial care that ought not be taken lightly. However, these must be analyzed reasonably and balanced against other values. And this is where private-sector partners can thoughtfully design products and services that account for the unique needs of these schools. Most education technology offerings still aren’t quite right for these schools – but it wouldn’t take much to get them there.
The obvious first concern is content. Any education technology product or provider has a strategy for managing content. But the difference here is that missteps can lead to devastating consequences (for example, a 17 year old who views adult content might be violating terms of confinement that have an explicit prohibition, and this ordinary act brings new criminal charges). The threshold for risk has to be calibrated appropriately, but it can’t be absolute.
The other major point of conflict is access. One of the professed goals of most secure facilities is to take kids out of contact with a peer group, specific adults, or a victim. But being removed from home and deprived of liberty has a traumatic effect on people, and the salve is often human connection. Unfortunately, adolescents — especially those in crisis — are notoriously poor gatekeepers of their social influences. Adults need to respond to this deep and desperate need by satisfying it – offering careful guidance and increasing access to positive interactions. One school in Los Angeles provided students with a virtual field trip to the Museum of Tolerance, complete with a live video interview with a Holocaust survivor, while they read Night and learned about violence, victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. In these spaces, giving kids the ability to reach back out into the world might carry some risk, but the potential reward is much greater.
Promising pilots are out there: Oregon is giving older students access to online college coursework, Oklahoma is providing online credit recovery for students, and teachers in Wyoming have outfitted their classrooms with technology “makerspaces.” Programs are combining the monitoring and control capability of software like Faronics Insight with the sophisticated security of a product like CloudLock to strike a balance of thoughtful care for young people that is realistic and optimistic. In just a handful of schools, there are students carrying Chromebooks from class to class (and back to their living units), doing online research, and working on independent projects that provide both rigor and relevance. For some incarcerated students, access to education technology is changing the way that they experience education today. But “some” isn’t enough.
*One note about the adults in the building — it is not an overstatement to say that the absence of appropriate student information systems available to schools that serve highly transient youth is a primary driver of poor service delivery. The best school and system leaders devise a patchwork of solutions that help to mitigate the chaos of missing and misaligned data systems, but these workarounds remain inefficient and ineffective.