Chromebook Laptop Pilot Success Leads to Program Expansion Efforts in Additional Facilities
Hear from TLM’s Classroom Facilitator, Katy Gilbert, and Executive Director, Sydney Heller on the impact of this program.
In the fall of 2021, The Last Mile launched an innovative new program to extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom and into housing units in Pelican Bay State Prison. The implementation of the Chromebook Pilot Program afforded program participants the opportunity to continue their web development education after classroom hours, during quarantines, and through lockdowns. The impact of the program was so meaningful it has rapidly spread to other facilities with TLM programming. A TLM teaching assistant shares, “My workflow has changed dramatically since receiving the Chromebook. I am able to prototype many ideas in the housing unit and debug them in my leisure time which significantly increases my productivity. The ability to write code and test it out on a computer immediately and drastically improves my retention of the concepts I am learning. Instead of abstractly thinking about a problem and taking down notes on paper, I am able to immediately prototype an idea and pivot easily if it does not work as planned. The mantra of “fail fast, fail early” in regard to development accurately describes me figuratively throwing spaghetti at a wall and making groundbreaking discoveries about my approach to different problems. Having the Chromebook makes me feel like I am creatively unshackled because I am able to test ANY idea, no matter how dumb it sounded in my mind.”
Currently, Chromebooks are in TLM classrooms in San Quentin State Prison, Rockville Correctional Facility, and Pelican Bay State Prison with plans to introduce the program in five additional facilities before the end of the year. The implementation of this program is both innovative and audacious because access to technology is traditionally limited in a prison setting; additionally, technology that an incarcerated individual can take with them to their housing unit is scarce. This reality explains student reactions at San Quentin State Prison when they first received their laptops. One student shared, “The day TLM and CALPIA handed me this Chromebook laptop was the day I was propelled into the future of prison privilege, tech world norm, unlimited coding repetitions, and into the swirling savor of freedom. That day I felt such an overwhelming emotion of joy, pride, and responsibility with having an everyday access to my own success in fulfilling my dream of becoming a computer programmer.”
We sat down with TLM’s San Quentin State Prison Classroom Facilitator, Katy Gilbert, and TLM’s Executive Director, Syd Heller, to learn in greater depth what this program means for the future of in-prison education and the support of future web developers who have been justice-impacted.
Why was the Chromebook Pilot Program created/what gap does it fill?
Sydney Heller: Bringing portable electronic devices that TLM program participants can take with them when they leave the classroom and go back to their housing units has been a goal of ours for several years. This initiative, in part, directly strengthens our ability to provide programming to incarcerated people, by creating a technology medium over which we can deliver curriculum outside of our classrooms and computer-lab type environments. This program addresses the frequent gap created when our participants lose access to our classroom. With the laptops, they have the ability to interact with our curriculum and continue their coursework from anywhere in the prison.
Why is this program so innovative?
Sydney Heller: Access to technology is not very widespread in the U.S. prison system. Access to technology that an incarcerated individual can take with them between their housing unit and an educational classroom is even more rare. The technology that some incarcerated people do have access to is typically either limited to being used in a classroom, focused on purchasing (and listening to) music, and/or offers some level of educational material not associated with a larger, more structured program. The TLM Chromebook Program puts laptops in the hands of our program participants and provides them continued access to our state-of-the-art web development curriculum to continue to develop their web development and computer coding skills. Our participants carry modern, capable devices that resemble the computers our staff use.
In no other U.S. prisons can you find incarcerated individuals carrying around laptops, which they use to access cloud-based computer science and web development curriculum from within prison walls.
What technology was employed to create this program?
Sydney Heller: The Last Mile issued Chromebook laptops (different manufacturers) to our participants, using in-house customizations and identity management for credentialing and installing WiFi access points and custom networking equipment in facilities to manage laptop network activity.
Were there partners or collaborators who made this program possible?
Sydney Heller: Partners and champions within various Departments of Corrections collaborated with us to ensure our devices met the requirements to be cleared for use within correctional facilities. DOC security and IT staff conducted testing and diagnostics to allow the distribution of our equipment, while not compromising the quality or security of our programming. Additionally, the technical development was completed by The Last Mile’s Engineering team.
What role does the classroom facilitator play at TLM?
Katy Gilbert: As a classroom facilitator, the day-to-day involves supporting students in the classroom to ensure they’re able to get the most out of the program. On the technical side, I make sure computers, connectivity, and access to the LMS are ready to go. I facilitate weekly remote instruction sessions, an opportunity for students to connect live with TLM’s instructors, all former program participants themselves. I act as a communication liaison between students and internal TLM staff, keeping them up to date with student progress while making expectations clear to students.
While the operational aspect is integral to the program’s success, from my perspective, a classroom facilitator’s biggest responsibility is to create a supportive environment where the students can thrive. Learning to code is, in itself, challenging. Learning code in prison, without internet access, presents a different set of challenges that can seem daunting. Students do have access to remote instructors and our help desk, but they don’t have the ability to Google a solution or refer to online resources that are commonly available to web developers in training outside of a prison. As a classroom facilitator, I encourage students to lean on each other, collaborate, and ask questions when they are stuck. I’ve worked to foster an environment where learners can take ownership of their learning and have a sense of autonomy regarding who they are as a student.
Share your experience working with students.
Katy Gilbert: I’ve seen firsthand the desire and determination that TLM students possess. When presented with an opportunity, students seize it and make the most of it. Students have been open to feedback, actively seeking out ways in which they can learn and grow. Numerous students have asked specific questions on how to improve not only their coding skills but their soft skills, like how to give a presentation. Additionally, we make it clear that in order to be successful, they need to lean on each other for support. Students have expressed that they are grateful to have a space where they can freely connect with fellow students that they might not have otherwise gotten the opportunity to know.
Experiences in the classroom are incredibly diverse. Several TLM students have never touched a computer before coming to prison and entering the TLM Program. One student knew this was going to be a roadblock in getting through the course. Throughout the year-long program, he dedicated 20 minutes each morning to the TLM typing proficiency program. His typing speed increased from 10 words per minute to about 50 words per minute by the time he finished the program. Not only did it allow him to improve his code, but it was also a testament to his determination.
Share your experience on “the day” students received their Chromebooks.
Katy Gilbert: When students learned that The Last Mile was exploring providing Chromebooks, it was all they could talk about. They knew it would change their experience in the program, allowing them to spend more time on difficult material, and improve their learning outcomes.
After much anticipation, my colleague Jon and I passed out the Chromebooks to the classroom. We ended up hosting a last-minute “laptop ceremony”. We called students up one by one, while the rest of the class was standing, cheering, and clapping. Many approached with heavy tears in their eyes. The room was buzzing all day with laughter, encouragement, and offers of support for one another. At one point, one of the students looked up at me and was incredibly emotional. He shared “Katy, I am overwhelmed. I never imagined this was a possibility for me, or that this could even be me.” He started the course with very limited computer experience and became someone who is a resource for others and a leader in the classroom. Every single person there knew the gravity of this milestone. As they left the classroom, the excitement and gratitude were palpable throughout the entire building.
From your perspective, why is this program so valuable for students?
Katy Gilbert: I have experienced firsthand the impact this program has had on students. I have watched students enter the classroom, some of whom have never touched a computer, and devour the curriculum. Since students received their Chromebooks, the average quiz scores increased by at least 5%. Students reported feeling less anxiety going into quizzes and more confidence when taking them. They are handing in work more quickly and are able to move on to new topics more smoothly. I’ve had students tell me they dream about a solution to a problem and are able to implement the code and make the connection in the moment, instead of waiting until they return to the classroom.
San Quentin State Prison has been affected by COVID lockdowns particularly hard. Programming continues to be impacted by lockdowns today, with students missing up to three months at a time. This makes progressing through the curriculum, remaining engaged with the material, and studying extremely difficult. However, during the most recent lockdown, students had their TLM Chromebooks. They were able to move on in the curriculum and work on their projects despite not being in the classroom. This allowed them to remain engaged with the material, including watching videos and reading PDFs that supported the curriculum. It has been invaluable to their learning.
What is our long-term goal for this program?
Sydney Heller: This is the first step down a long path full of possibilities. Although we do not know exactly which direction this program will organically lead us, one long-term goal is for these laptops to enable a massive increase in the access to our program by allowing current and future program participants to fully interact with our programming from outside our classrooms (or even with no centralized classroom at all). That means incarcerated individuals would remain connected to the TLM network through their laptops while in their housing units. This would allow them to continue to work on projects, stream videos, and even interact with instructors during non-classroom hours, and during lockdowns and quarantines.
Anything else someone should know about this program?
Sydney Heller: This program represents how innovative approaches can create opportunity and change within the U.S. prison system. Access to technology that supports highly advanced STEM curriculum on WiFi connected laptops within a prison may have seemed impossible to many. And perhaps it was an even further stretch of the imagination that programs like this are supported by government agencies often with limited technical infrastructure. This program is proof that it is possible; The Last Mile has done it.