The University of Waikato is giving inmates at the country’s biggest women’s prison the chance to change their lives through education.

It is working with RAW, the charitable social venture set up by Annah Stretton to work with recidivist female offenders to replace criminal activity with education and work. The paper, STMGT110 The Entrepreneur, is being taken by 18 inmates at Auckland Region Women's Prison in Wiri, South Auckland. When Ms Stretton approached Waikato University with the idea, the Vice-Chancellor Neil Quigley saw a real opportunity, and other staff quickly got on-board.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic Professor Robyn Longhurst has been overseeing the project, and she says it is a circuit breaker for the women. “Introducing them to another way of being, thinking and imagining themselves in the world, as a person who is educated and can achieve. If even half of the women succeed in passing just this one paper, then it is an enormous achievement.”

The pilot is a fully online first-year degree course, which Teaching Fellow Gina Millar is co-ordinating. She says that when she first visited the inmates, she just saw a group of ladies in a library. The thing is, the group of ladies were actually serious repeat offenders, who have been convicted of crimes ranging from attempted murder to methamphetamine dealing.  A lot of them are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and never finished high school, with ages ranging from 18 to mid-40s. Ms Millar says the course aims to give them the skills to plan, create ideas within a framework, and look at new venture creation using a business model. By the end of the paper each woman will have a written business plan and the blueprint to bring their ideas to life. “We are looking into different ways to get them to go back out into society and redirect their skills. Most of them have children, and they want to get them back. They know they  need to have a legitimate way of earning money.”

Ms Millar has just finished marking the inmates first assignment, and they have all passed. In fact she says they have done really well. There was a bit of ‘text speak’ in some of the responses, but she’s given them feedback about that issue, and others. “At the end of the day it is  a university paper with academic rigour.”

The course is delivered on iPads, which may seem simple but in a prison environment any kind of technology is potentially problematic. All Waikato digital course delivery services are online. So the challenge was to provide an online service in an environment which is not only offline, but which actively blocks any kind of internet activity. Waikato’s IT Team Leader Paul Cowan has taken a very hands-on approach to the challenge. Each week he drives to Wiri, gathers up the iPads in a box, and takes them outside the prison grounds to his car, where he can get an internet signal. He syncs the iPads, updates the course material and any assignments which have been done are submitted for marking back at Waikato. “It involves a lot of driving, but it was the most practical way to do it. So the inmates' e-learning environment has all the same material, just like any other Waikato student.”

One of the inmates enrolled in the paper has been in prison for 15 years, and when she went inside there was no such thing as an iPad. She writes:

Never in a million years would I have believed introducing technology loaded with such challenging content to a group of women (of which 75% have been out of society for 5-15 years already) in a place where there is so much fear and very little trust, with the expectation of commitment and focus would ever work. I am actually astounded because on day two I witnessed complete silence in a classroom of 20 women who were all concentrating, supporting each other and determined. Even our supervisors have been blown away by what they’re seeing.

Professor Longhurst says the process of getting a university paper into prison hasn’t always been simple, but the opportunity for the women involved is huge. She says it is the combination of what the university is delivering, and how we are delivering it that allows the women to see real value in learning. “Many of the women are very entrepreneurial already, so the idea that they can take these skills to help them live a life that is free of crime is a great thing.”

Raw founder Annah Stretton says when she first approached Waikato University to partner with the development of a higher-level learning platform at the corrections facility her primary goal was to create visibility and opportunity for the women inside. “As it transpires, the benefits have been so much richer. Through this stage one paper we have managed to challenge conventional wisdom about what’s possible at an individual and institutional level, disrupted anti-social norms and group dynamics and, best of all, demonstrated the value of diversity in a learning environment.”

She says what has made it all possible is the make-it-happen approach from the team at Waikato University. “From equipment supplies to crafting of course content and dedicated support, they have consistently over-delivered in action and can do attitude.”

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