Digital Learning Tool Personalizes Lessons For Incarcerated Youth

In a place where academic skills vary greatly, adaptive learning technology can help personalize courses. An initiative led by the U.S. Department of Education is building the digital content. But many youth incarceration centers still need computers.

Digital Learning Tool Personalizes Lessons For Incarcerated Youth

At schools inside of youth incarceration facilities, there is no one lesson plan that can even claim to fit all.


“They can be all different ages, all different grade levels,” David Domenici, the director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, tells Fast Company. “In those environments, kids don’t typically travel from the ninth-, tenth-, eleventh-grade block-step program.”

As part of an initiative facilitated by the U.S. Department of Education, Domenici and a consortium of 11 state criminal justice agencies, which he leads, will help inform the creation of a new digital program that addresses the varying academic skill sets of incarcerated youth by customizing courses to individual students’ skills. The tool, developed by adaptive learning technology company Knewton and publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will identify and deliver appropriate learning content for each student by passively observing factors such as his or her grasp of key concepts and reading speed while doing homework. Instead of presenting content linearly, like a book, it will surface lessons in whatever order is most appropriate for a particular student.

Knewton has produced similar adaptive learning programs for mainstream classrooms using content from sources such as Khan Academy, McGraw-Hill and Pearson, but its newest product–based on a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt series called SkillsTutor–will address a wider range of skills in youth incarceration centers, where a disproportionate number of students lack adequate literacy skills and as few as 15% go on to earn a high school diploma.

Says Knewton founder and CEO Jose Ferreira:

Some of these kids are weak in everything, but [our technology can say] here are the points where they’re just bleeding. At this spot here and this spot over here. If we don’t get them some help here, they’re not going to be able to progress at all in math or reading or what have you. We can find the things that are holding them back. The big clusters of concepts that we just absolutely have to fix. And we can prioritize–we can’t get them good at everything, but these are the things that we have to get them good at to make progress in this course.

While the Department of Education facilitated the program’s creation, the agency is not funding it. Nor will it fund the program’s distribution. Centers will pay for the program the same way they would a textbook. But the project’s biggest obstacle isn’t necessarily related to the content. Rather, it’s that not all schools within youth incarceration centers have adequate computer and Internet access. Reliable national statistics describing computer access inside youth incarceration centers are hard to come by, but Domenici estimates that the number of centers that utilize technology in a robust way to help children learn is low.

One hope is this adaptive learning tool will help change that. Domenici’s consortium of 11 state criminal justice agencies plans to help pilot the program, and good results in the pilot could be encouragement for investments in technology infrastructure.


“This problem is so frustrating to so many people, that if we can show positive results, there are a lot of funds to drive computers and bandwidth into these centers,” Knewton’s Ferreira says.

[Image: Flickr user Farouq Taj]

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.