Case Study: Passive Accreditation For Prisons
Blog by Patrick Dunn, Project Account Manager for Ufi VocTech Trust
Training prisoners in vocational skills, while serving their terms, is both extremely important, and very challenging. Currently, only around 40% of prisoners leave prison with a qualification, which is a wasted opportunity, and does not reflect of the amount of quality training that takes place.
Fluence’s aim for this project, with its powerful AI technology, is to help educators deliver better, more targeted support to prisoners, to help them learn more effectively. The technology converts 'naturally occurring evidence' produced in and around the classroom, into formal evidence of a learner’s genuine capability and learning needs. This in turn should significantly reduce the challenge of conducting formal assessments, and help more prisoners achieve more meaningful qualifications. Central to the aims of the project is the concept of assessment and accreditation becoming a passive process, occurring silently in the background, allowing more qualifications to be awarded, more easily while allowing teachers to get on with the job of teaching.
The project is certainly making good progress, but has faced a range of significant challenges right from the start. These included limited access of prisoners to usable IT systems, an overwhelming preponderance of paper-based training, non-standardised approaches between training providers, and strict limitations on particular devices (most notably cameras and scanners) that would be taken for granted in most other learning contexts. In effect, the emphasis of the project shifted, to become one of digital transformation, with Fluence grappling with fundamental questions about how prisons should deploy IT infrastructure in order to benefit from digital technologies in the longer term.
One example that demonstrates how Fluence has flexed its original project to overcome these challenges, is their development of an entirely new capability to digitize the process of marking paper worksheets. Handwriting recognition technology, which was not part of the original specification, was added to the system so that paper worksheets could be marked, and the AI system trained. This new capability, and the process flowing from it, became critical to the success of the project, because so little digital output from training was available. While this new capability was a huge benefit in broader terms, allowing Novus (the training content provider) to capture intelligence from across their network of prisons, it had to overcome the further challenge that image-capturing technology, such as scanners and cameras, were strictly banned in prisons. So, to date, the marking and training technology has been deployed outside the secure prison estate, with worksheets despatched to a central point. Nevertheless, Fluence’s ability to ensure that they can deploy AI in conjunction with paper-based resources is the project’s biggest achievement to date. By clearly mapping out the new found processes, a business case is being developed to deploy scanners into the back-offices of prisons, which are only accessed by staff.
Over time, as the IT infrastructure of prisons develops, the process will be able to shift back towards that originally envisaged for the project, where learners submit their work directly into the Fluence platform. This too is a challenge, as it requires new and old processes to run concurrently, and a change management process as the old processes are superceded.
But this case is not just about overcoming obstacles, to achieve an original goal. It shows how a digital intervention – here involving the automation of marking and accreditation – can have effects across a network of organisations in unexpected ways. For example, it has demonstrated a need to encourage learners to complete more worksheets, rather than give up half way, and highlighted an important difference in emphasis between policy makers and frontline staff in terms of learning priorities. It demonstrates how networked digital technologies will, by their nature, have a ripple effect across organisations, touching areas and issues that were never original envisaged as part of the initiative.
In the longer term, it is clear that this passive accreditation technology will have a profound impact on how training is delivered within the prison service, and consequently on the lives of those who engage in it.