The Project at a Glance

The Challenge

To improve the literacy of adult prisoners in a corrections environment, boost their confidence and reduce prison costs by reducing reoffending.

The Solution

An adult literacy course, with content developed by educators, presented on custom built tablets which are appropriate for use in secure facilities.

What We Did

User-centred design
Custom tablet manufacturing
User testing

The Outcome

Tablets with the literacy course were deployed into prisons and had increased learning outcomes compared to classroom delivery, boosting the confidence of users.

open polytech e-learning social impact

Looking to increase confidence and reduce reoffending

Ackama worked alongside Open Polytechnic of NZ to deliver a tablet education experience into prisons in New Zealand. The project approach was innovative in bringing the instructional design team into the technical project and iteratively delivering parts of the solution over time.

Our lean approach delivered a simple initial system and trained learning experts to test course content using paper prototypes and early digital releases, leading to major learnings and a major enhancement in success for the pilot service. Within a corrections environment testing with prisoners was radical and we successfully evolved the solution through a number of iterations. This way of working led to the content team to evolve and iterate their content based on this testing and our agile process managed the delivery in phases.

Delivered to learners via a mobile application, the solution incorporates a custom content management solution and dedicated publishing pipeline for learning content to be created by the polytechnic instructional design team and for these media to be delivered onto devices. The design of the custom CMS empowered the team at Polytech to have full control of their digital learning content, such that they were able to continue to evolve their course delivery without reliance on technical development time.

Test early and often

One of the key challenges of the project was testing. We needed to build something that worked better than the traditional classroom methods, and we needed to test concepts early and often. Testing was performed inside securities facilities, beginning with paper prototypes and powerpoint presentations, and delivered repeatedly as our solution evolved. This had an added benefit of winning the trust of the prison operators as it built up an understanding of the wider needs of administering a secure environment and the context of providing educational opportunities within it.

We discovered that a lot of the target audience hadn’t used computers or tablets before, so the standard swipe gestures confused them. Pushing a button worked best as it made users feel more in control. This made the navigation design seem somewhat retro compared to modern tablet apps, but it gave the users confidence, as they were less likely to make mistakes.

open polytech e-learning social impact


“My missus wanted to know who wrote the letter home and it was me!” – course participant.

The target for success was that by the end prisoners would be able to read at a level that would allow them to participate in everyday life. We are proud to say that the results exceeded all our expectations, with reading levels jumping beyond what the previous scale had indicated was possible.

The prisoners made excellent students and worked through the content at a rapid pace. A significant number of them completed the self-directed course within a week, which gave both them and us a huge sense of accomplishment.

Additional benefits include the fact that the tablets can be reused, which is cheaper than printing out the previously used paper courses. The digital channel which we developed to help prisoners learn can also be applied to other areas, such as studying for a driver’s license, and the e-learning literacy course could be used to help New Zealand adults outside of prisons who cannot read at a day-to-day functioning level.