Harvard professor says he gets thank-you notes from prisoners, some of which are secretly using smartphones to take his free computer-science class

Prisoners are using smartphones to access online classes, and at least one Harvard professor told Insider they even send him thank-you notes from time to time.

The Marshall Project reported on the rise of secret smartphone use amongst prisoners, and talked to one inmate who said that he leads a group message of around 300 other prisoners learning computer science using an online course from Harvard. The group message includes prisoners in other states, the inmate said, and they use Harvard’s CS50: Introduction to Computer Science course materials that are available for free online.

“There are a bunch of schools that do that, but I find Harvard’s are the best, and that professor — David Malan — I think he’s one of the best,” the inmate said, adding that the course is self-guided and self-graded.

Malan told Insider over email that he’s received thank-you notes from students in prison over the years.

“We have such admiration for students who are trying to acquire new knowledge and skills on their own, ever more so in circumstances like those,” Malan said.

In addition to inmates taking online classes like the man in Georgia, some pose as regular students in online classes, something that online learning through Zoom allows.

Because internet access is often restricted for students in prison, he said Harvard has tried to ensure that the materials for CS50 can be used offline by having downloadable videos and software that can be installed locally.

Malan encourages incarcerated students to reach out to him if they have trouble with accessing the course. He also wants to reassure them that, even for him after years of teaching computer science, programming something almost always takes longer than he expects, so he encourages them to not be too discouraged when struggling in the course.

Educational resources being freely available online “is a wonderful thing,” Malan said, adding that learning communities are important since learning something on one’s own can be challenging.

Malan said he’s worked with teachers and students in Central America, and has also received notes from students of his online class in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and several other countries.

Most jails and prisons don’t allow inmates to have cell phones, meaning these inmates are at risk of being caught and punished for having their phones, as The Marshall Project reports.

An incarcerated man in California told The Marshall Project that prisoners “have to acquire contraband phones from the people who are supposed to be watching us. That’s the only way we can do things to better ourselves because they damn sure don’t offer that stuff here.”

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