Diane Davidson, who spent two years behind bars for methamphetamine possession, knows how hard it is for a convicted felon to find stable employment.
“As soon as they see my record, I don’t get the job,” said Davidson, 50, of Eureka, Calif. She served her time in Orange County Jail in Santa Ana, Calif.
“I’m working to get the felony removed. And I’m taking some online courses in IT, networking, doing repairs and basic troubleshooting. On top of trying to clear my record, I’ve got to have these skills.”
And if it weren’t for the free massive open online course (MOOC) offered by the Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online (ALISON)—an e-learning provider and academy founded in Galway, Ireland in 2007 that has designed a module especially for the formerly incarcerated—Davidson added that it’s unlikely that she’d be honing those skills right now.
“We’ve been reaching folks in marginalized communities worldwide … the unemployed, elderly, immigrants,” says ALISON’s founder and CEO Mike Feerick. Creating a MOOC for the formerly incarcerated in the United States is in keeping with his company’s mission as a “social justice” learning enterprise.
Last month, his company officially launched its “advance diploma in workplace re-entry skills” classes for persons leaving prison.
“You can look at formerly incarcerated people in two ways: As bad people who deserved to be locked up or as people who didn’t get a fair shake in life,” Feerick told The Crime Report.
“There are exceptions to both, of course. But simply putting people in prison isn’t the answer. If you change their minds and give them time to grow academically, you give them a new opportunity.”
MOOCs can enroll an unlimited number of students in online courses. Stanford, Harvard and Duke Universities are among those offering MOOCs, which also do not grant students a college degree.
ALISON’s re-entry module—promoted mainly through educators at correctional facilities, probation officers, federal correctional education officials, nonprofit re-entry organizations, and others—debuts as some U.S. lawmakers are making educational access for convicted persons a key issue.
Education ‘Reduces Recidivism’
Several previous studies, including a 2013 Rand report that the U.S. Department of Justice commissioned, have concluded that being educated improves employment and overall life prospects for the formerly incarcerated and lessens the chances that they will be re-convicted and resentenced to prison.
Several members of Congress have proposed lifting a 20-year-old ban on letting incarcerated persons apply for federal Pell Grants that cover college tuition; a Democratic-controlled Congress enacted that ban in 1994. During that tough-on-crime period, lawmakers insisted that criminals should not have what some perceived as the perk and privilege of an education.
Last year, President Barack Obama’s administration, which supports repealing the Pell Grant ban, agreed to give juveniles in 2,500 correctional facilities across the country access to Pell Grants. On July 31, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pilot Pell Project, which will fund college study for a limited number of prisoners and track the impact of education on their lives before deciding whether to further expand access to Pell.
Those are good moves, said Iowa City, Iowa-based Heather Clausen, who earned a law degree but opted, instead, to train teachers who work in prisons, jails and other correctional settings. Widening access to Pell Grants likely will affect a limited number of prisoners, she added.
“It’s only the best and the brightest who [get] that kind of access” and actually earn a college degree, said Clausen, a digital learning expert with the Correctional Education Association and re-entry consultant to ALISON.
“When you talk about expecting real and true change in reducing recidivism … the curve is high. When you’re talking about some of these lower-level learners—for a lack of better description—you need the kind of gap-filler that ALISON provides … That’s the stuff that’s going to have a really big impact for the broadest number in the population.”
ALISON’s courses are designed for, among others, junior high and high school dropouts with extremely limited workplace experience. (Ex-felon Davidson, however, earned bachelor’s degrees in business administration and accounting but has never held jobs that let her use those skills, she said.)
Learning for Jobs
CEO Feerick said re-entry courses include ones focusing on “basic IT, how to understand a spreadsheet, a Word document; how to do self-promotion; how to build a resume … how to understand customer service; how the customer is always right … and why you need to be at work on time every day.”
“Some of these concepts are not very familiar to people who have not worked in a conventional work environment,” he added. “We don’t want to be patronizing but we cannot take any of this for granted.
“When [incarcerated] people are supervised all the time, they are not encouraged to take initiative or take responsibility for their own behavior.”
As a for-profit venture, ALISON makes its money from advertisers—mainly colleges, universities and related higher-education endeavors—and state parole boards that pay for those who complete courses to receive completion certificates on parchment, Feerick said.
“We don’t insist you buy a physical parchment. But a lot of people do want that,” he said.
Feerick said ALISON has enrolled 6 million students worldwide in all of its courses; 1 million of those are in the United States. The company has not yet calculated how many are in the re-entry module, he said.
Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and a 2014-15 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow. She welcomes your comments.