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Texas Adopts WiderNet's COEP

Several times each month, Jeannie Colson’s job as a librarian takes a turn for the unusual. When she arrives for work, she must leave her cell phone in the car, she is patted down for any kind of contraband, and guards stay within calling distance. The students she is helping with academic research are sometimes called out of study hall to take a shower.

Although she is employed as a librarian by Lee College in Baytown, Texas, Colson regularly steps inside the Texas Correctional System, where she helps hundreds of inmates pursue their Associate degrees.

The guards, schedules and searches are only some of the evidence that this is not the typical college environment: Notable for its absence is the Internet. Prisoners are not permitted to access any online systems.

The deficiency means that beyond not being able to connect with the outside world, inmates do not have the resources they need to effectively complete some of the research assigned as part of their coursework.

“We are supposed to be providing research opportunities to our students because it is required for accreditation, and yet we were not doing that,” says Colson. “I’ve been trying for years to find a way to provide resources to our students in prison and it just hasn’t happened.”

In fact Colson searched for about seven years for a way to give prisoners access to research opportunities and a large quantity of accredited resources without having them touch the Internet. No one seemed to be producing CD-ROMs with course materials anymore, and going straight to vendors produced no results.

When she finally connected with the WiderNet Project, Colson realized the eGranary was exactly the kind of resource that could provide prisoners in Texas with the accredited course material they needed to conduct research and continue their studies.

The eGranary is an “Internet in a Box” of sorts; a server containing scraped versions of millions of documents that are categorized and searchable in a way that approximates online searching of digital libraries.

The offline digital libraries contain copies of Khan Academy, which offers courses in everything from algebra to electrical engineering and entrepreneurship, and full-text journals students can use to research topics for their sociology and history courses.

Prisoners can view math and science video lessons produced by MIT Blossoms, and look up unfamiliar concepts on a cached version of Wikipedia.  Whitney Clarke, WiderNet’s Correctional Offline Education Platform coordinator, says she’s still working on getting a more complete scrape of Library of Congress collections and other U.S. History resources.

The Correctional Offline Education Platform contains Moodle, or digital academic platform where professors can organize and assign course content, review assignments, provide readings and track progress.

Having an Internet-like resource “gives them a key to the outside world,” says Clarke, “not through pop culture but through the ability to understand how to get a job, what I need to do for a resume, anything that will help them transition.”

The three eGranaries now deployed to the Texas Correctional System serve about 500 inmates through the Correctional Offline Education Platform—a project made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services and Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Colson anticipates that eGranaries will be in place in two more prisons by the end of the year with a third slotted for 2017.

Together with an e-commerce professor, Colson is now learning how to use the eGranary’s community information platform so that they can teach inmates to use it for designing and creating functional web pages—something they’d never been able to do before.

“They’re loving it,” Colson says. “The students are absolutely loving it.”

Colson trains students, and especially student-tutors, on using the eGranaries, and sometimes stays for a full three-hour study hall session so prisoners using it can ask questions as students would a reference librarian at Lee College.

But these students—some of whom have spent decades with nothing approximating the Internet—are particularly grateful to have this resource. Colson says she’d gotten one or two thank you notes during her whole career as a librarian. Now, she gets armfuls from thankful inmates who envision their futures in the outside world with a little more confidence.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to be enrolled in the college although I'm behind these walls,” one student wrote for an extra credit assignment on technology. “I won't let it hinder my future goals: learning and education are virtues.”

“It had been several semesters that it had been mentioned that we would be getting Internet in a Box until we finally did this semester,” another student wrote. “It is awesome! E-Granary has so much information on it. It's got business plans, career information, even cooking recipes…It also gives us the savvy as to how to be computer literate once we get home.”

“The chance to simply type in any subject and receive unending amounts of information and research has given students inside prison a chance at truly becoming academically successful,” wrote a third.

Access to an Internet-like resource is giving these students fundamental skills they’ll need when they complete their sentences and return to the professional world: website development and calculus are important but so are life skills others take for granted, like the ability to quickly and smartly search for information online.

Besides making their educational experience richer, it allows them to catch up with the rest of the world.

“It really matters,” Colson says.