IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

KU Broadens Digital Literacy for Formerly Incarcerated Women

The University of Kansas is spearheading a technology program that offers a comprehensive array of digital skills training to facilitate the reintegration of incarcerated women into society.

digital literacy
An expanding program at the University of Kansas (KU) is empowering women — specifically those who have formerly been incarcerated — to reclaim their livelihoods through digital skills training.

In 2019, the University of Kansas’ Center for Digital Inclusion set out on a mission to create a robust digital literacy program to empower formerly incarcerated women with the digital skills needed to reintegrate into society successfully. The program's goal was to offer a wide spectrum of digital proficiency trainings, ranging from training on Microsoft Office tools to website design, online security, coding, computational thinking, and other crucial skills for technology-oriented careers. The curriculum was crafted through a comprehensive review of the specific needs of women transitioning from incarceration with collaborative co-design sessions involving the women themselves and various community partners.

“I am a felon, but jumped on this opportunity because I knew I was lucky to be given this chance," wrote a 27-year-old unnamed participant in a survey shared by KU. "This is a great way to further your education, especially if you have things holding you back like I do."

Another 38-year-old participant wrote, “I am glad that this program connected me with teachers who believed in me, especially during my recovery."

Feedback like this, along with other successes for the program, has resulted in a recent expansion of services. The KU Center for Digital Inclusion recently received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to broaden the initiative. A portion of a $1.6 million grant will go toward a train-the-trainer program to help empower those teaching to go a step beyond their tech curriculum and really connect with participants.

“We work with public libraries, workforce centers and nonprofit organizations supporting women's re-entry to train them to provide technology education sessions,” said Hyunjin Seo, the director of the KU Center for Digital Inclusion. “The representatives from these entities attend our Train-the-Trainer workshop sessions so they are equipped with not only technology-related knowledge but also how to effectively mentor women.”

The funding additionally enables KU to host workshops aimed at empowering digital navigators — peer mentors who are alumni of previous program iterations. These navigators play an essential role in guiding and supporting women currently enrolled in the program, Seo said.

The program has trained more than 200 women so far, with a future goal of using the new NSF grant to up that to 600 women leaving or recently released from jails or prisons in Kansas and Missouri.

Seo said that interviews and surveys are conducted before, during and after training to gauge the participant’s skill levels to uncover how they have improved, as well as recidivism rates. However, Seo pointed out that these are not the only indicators of success.

“There are multiple ways of measuring program effectiveness,” she explained. “In addition to interviews and surveys, we analyze how the women’s self-efficacy and self-esteem levels have changed before, during and after participation in our program. We also analyze the content or assignments that the women produced as part of the program through our digital story tunneling modules, and how they incorporated what they learned throughout the program into their assignments.”

Seo says the department is working with a diverse group of partners to provide ongoing support for women beyond their initial digital literacy training.

“Our program focuses primarily on technology education, but also in those educational modules, we discuss topics such as how to identify and assess information quality to circumvent misinformation and disinformation,” she said. “And we’re not only addressing the issue of the digital divide or digital access but also really how and where participants get information.”

KU’s Center for Digital Inclusion also collaborates with an advisory board comprised of legal professionals that offers insights into the overall legal landscape for participants as they prepare to transition from incarceration.

When asked what advice or insights she would offer other institutions interested in launching a similar initiative, Seo said there are many aspects to consider.

“First, I think it is important to take time to better understand the population you work with, which is why we do extensive research before offering technology education. From there, you can tailor your program based on the participants' expressed interest and needs,” she explained. “Our participants also say that relationships are very important, and the key reason most have stayed with our program for one to three years is because they value the relationships, those trusted relationships that they have built with our program staff.”

Seo emphasizes that the linchpin of success for a program of this magnitude lies in its ability to collaborate effectively with other community organizations and lean into those partnerships wholeheartedly.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.