Developing Faculty Use Of Virtual Learning In Incarcerated Higher Education Programs


One of the most important things any society can do is to provide its residents with a quality education (Buchanan, 2012). But what does a “quality” education mean? John Dew offers a few different ways to define it, such quality in education is “quality as endurance,” like a Mercedes Benz that will drive for hundreds of thousands of miles. Another potential definition is “quality as luxury and prestige” like a private yacht in Monte Carlo, or “quality as conformance requirements” or “quality as continuous improvement” (Dew, 2009, p. 4-5). While all of these suppositions are important, it is quality improvement in education that drives educators to constantly improve their profession and provide better guidance to their students. One way and area that administrators can best achieve this improvement is to focus on helping faculty who teach in correctional higher education.


Incarcerated education

It’s critical to understand the complexity of teaching in a correctional setting. As Spaulding describes, “Many prison educators are not full participants in the correctional system, and they are not full-time members of the higher education community” (Spaulding, 2011, p.73). These teachers are not fully members of either the higher education or correctional systems. Instead, most correctional teachers are contracted part-time through local universities or community colleges (Williams, 1989).


Teaching in a correctional facility

I’ve spent many years teaching in different educational settings. I first started out in public education as a K-8 ESL teacher. Then, I moved into an adjunct professor position with Central Arizona College before teaching in a correctional setting with adult inmates. For the first two positions, I received ongoing faculty development training to bolster my skills and learn about advances in best practices. However, in correctional education, I have never received training other than security procedures and self-defense lessons. Luckily, I am able to carry over the learning I received through the Central Arizona College faculty development training into my correctional education setting. However, those teachers that are not in dual employment conditions like I am are expected to provide the best teaching they can without the benefit of similar training. Hundreds if not thousands of teachers in correctional education are expected to continue to develop quality in their teaching craft without the support of training to improve.

Though students have access to textbooks, computers, libraries, educational T.V., and other teaching tools, these cannot replace having a teacher. Students still perceive faculty as the most valuable resource in a correctional education classroom. In an academic correctional classroom the teacher is the most important asset for inmate student learning and “are perceived as very helpful by almost all students” (Tewksberry & Stengel, 2006, p. 21). To ensure that this continues to be true, we must support our correctional facility teachers and offer the resources necessary to allow them to better themselves.

Personal computers and the Internet have revolutionized entire sectors of American society. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype and other online communications media have allowed billions of people around the world to share ideas in a matter of seconds, mostly at a very low cost. These advances in computer technology are as remarkable as they are familiar.

But most people are not aware of how computers and Internet technology are transforming the way students learn. This emerging education paradigm is often called “virtual learning,” and it has the potential to improve student achievement, educational access and schools’ cost-effectiveness.

Specifically, virtual learning uses computer software, the Internet or both to deliver instruction to students. This minimizes or eliminates the need for teachers and students to share a classroom. Virtual learning does not include the increasing use of e-mail or online forums to help teachers better communicate with students and parents about coursework and student progress; as helpful as these learning management systems are, they do not change how students are taught (Van Beek, 2011).


Education In Correctional Facilities

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, there are rigorous standards that many states require teachers must meet to earn or maintain their certification. This includes professional development activities that improve teachers’ knowledge of their subjects; helps them ensure students can meet state academic achievement standards; and are developed with tandem with teachers, principals, parents, and administrators of the school, among other requirements (United States Department of Education, 2012). However, part-time faculty often struggle to meet these professional development requirements, a challenge with is especially concerning as so many teachers in correctional facilities are contracted part-time.

The challenges inmate students encounter every day in correctional facilities are very different from students of traditional higher educational programs (DelliCarpini, 2008). However, relevant and meaningful professional development for higher education faculty is rarely available even though we instruct students who are most at-risk in terms of academic success. Instead, faculty in correctional higher education programs attend professional development venues aimed at more traditional higher education teachers and often find that it is not applicable to their classrooms. For example, I often attend training opportunities through Central Arizona College and leave feeling that though I received interesting and valid information, it didn’t really fit into a correctional classroom environment.

After teaching corrections for more than four years, I’ve grown familiar with the student population and the nature of the job. I’ve become accustomed to the flow of daily life inside the walls of a prison and feel a sense of comfort in the routine. I could be having a stressful morning getting to work, but once I check out my mace and key set I calm down. Inmate students usually have not had the most positive experience with academic education. For many, the educational system let them down. For some, they were just lazy and were not interested in school as teenagers, but most inmate students want an academic education. The challenge is the discipline and knowledge needed to slowly prepare for the GED test. If we’re able to provide relevant professional development opportunities, we can work to address these challenges and ensure that we’re nurturing correctional teachers who can help these students succeed.



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DelliCarpini, M. (2008). Creating communities of professional practice in the correctional education classroom. Journal Of Correctional Education, 59(3), 219-230.

Dew, J. (2009). Quality issues in higher education. Journal For Quality & Participation, 32(1), 4-9.

Pieczura, M. (2012). Weighing the pros and cons of TAP. Educational Leadership, 70(3), 70-72.

Spaulding, S. (2011). Borderland stories about teaching college in prison. New Directions For Community Colleges, 2011(155), 73-83. doi:10.1002/cc.459

Tewksbury, R., & Stengel, K. M. (2006). Assessing Correctional Education Programs: The Students’ Perspective. Journal Of Correctional Education, 57(1), 13-25.

United States Department of Education. (2012). A PPSS lessons from the field report providing effective teachers for all students: Examples from five districts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service.

Van Beek, Michael. (2011). Retrieved from:

Williams, D. N., & ERIC Clearinghouse for Junior Colleges, L. C. (1989). Correctional Education and the Community College. ERIC Digest.

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