Mathehu's Weblog

mulling over (research) ideas

Taking Moodle into Prison Dentistry

It’s official, I’ll start a new job in August looking into oral health promotion in Scottish prisons. Here are my first thoughts ab0ut how to approach that.

Dentists working in prisons tend to work in professional isolation. They are usually the only dentist in a prison and work without the support of dental hygienists or therapists. In addition to dental and oral health challenges they are also working in an environment, which is, at times, challenging their interpersonal and stress management skills.

Dentistry in prison is also rarely a funding priority, which results in under-staffing, long waiting times, logistic difficulties in moving prisoners from their cells to the prison surgery, difficulties sourcing necessary equipment and materials in a timely fashion, etc.

While the funding shortage is not likely to change, there are some apparently cost-neutral strategies to at least address professional isolation, professional development as well as sharing of good practice and challenges.

Moodle is an open source, virtual learning environment, which is free to use. It has been traditionally adopted in schools or Universities but is now used by almost 50,000 organisations across the globe. This widespread uptake is a testimony of its flexibility, free service, interactivity and a host of other features, which are either part and parcel of the package or can easily be linked to wherever they are in the web. As a result, it lends itself well as a platform to support collaboration and networking among groups like prison dentists as well as between dentists and other professions (health and otherwise).

I’ll be keeping a close eye on David’s blog to inform my thinking and approach on this matter.

Let’s assume that offering a Moodle platform to prison dentists is a good idea.  First of all, prison dentists would have to be part of this right from the start. They would need to inform the content of the Moodle platform, the tools utilised, the appearance, and the level of interactivity.

What arguments are there to convince them of the benefits of participating in such an endeavour? How could these arguments be presented so that they convince dentists and potential funders?

Let’s use David’s ideas for the first time and explore the concept of distributive or distributed leadership. Distributed leadership was described “as a shared process of enhancing the collective and individual capacity of people to accomplish their work roles effectively” (Yukl, 1999, p. 292). Exploring the idea of distributed leadership makes intuitive sense from a number of perspectives.

  • Prison dentists are highly qualified professionals used to working in isolation. Each one is an expert in their field, potentially providing gold standard care, which could inform service delivery in general. Often they also work in private practice where they have leadership roles in their business.
  • There is usually one dentist per prison. Each prison will provide an idiosyncratic context for the dentist’s work. Consequently, each prison dentist needs to consider his environment but may be able to benefit from other perspectives in the aim of improving practice generally as well as in each prison context.
  • Health care provision in prisons falls under the responsibility of various leaders, including health professionals, prison authorities, and governance institutions. A distributed leadership perspective would allow for the various roles and remits to be integrated.
  • The skills required to provide gold standard oral health care within the constraints and unique challenges of the prison system are likely to exceed the skills set of any one person.

On the other hand, it may be a stretch to call individual dentists’ practice shared leadership. Maybe, this should rather be viewed as a network or a potential partnership. Let’s have a look at partnership working within the health context. Following this, I’ll delve into Social Network Analysis.


Yukl, G. (1999). An evaluation of conceptual weaknesses in transformational and charismatic leadership theories. Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), p. 285-305.


May 13, 2010 - Posted by | Dental care research


  1. G’day Markus,

    Have been thinking about this a bit. Based on our talk, just started looking at distributed cognition and started with Wikipedia –

    How does that fit with your view of psychology?

    Not sure I’d start with Moodle – a bit too deterministic. It might be the answer (though I doubt it) but I wouldn’t start there). I think the distributive leadership stuff is really just a buzzword for the broader conceptions related to distributed cognition and maybe activity theory (though I haven’t read enough to be sure).

    My ideas about the alignment project are heavily influenced by 10+ years trying to support and help improve L&T in the Australian higher education sector. Given I have no knowledge at all about dentistry within Scottish prisons, I’m reluctant to think I could suggest anything.

    Which says I’d have to start with some sort of ethnographic study, get to know the context within which Scottish prison dentistry is happening. Obviously there’d also be a general literature search on what is already known and maybe also some of the stuff about forming groups of professionals. I hesitate to mention communities of practice. The other area I’d like to know more about would be what is known about providing “good” dentistry. What support do they need?

    Once you have that, then you can start thinking about interventions………I think I’m repeating myself, a couple of rums…


    Comment by davidtjones | May 14, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks for that, David. I just ruminated a bit on distributive leadership and I don’t think it’ll help me here! One of my past PhD students looked heavily into social and professional networks and I think this may be a better way forward. I’ll have a look at her thesis again and see what ideas this will spark.
      I had thought of the Communities of Practice idea and maybe I should revisit that.

      Saying that, while I like the idea of distributive leadership in academia,I wonder whether a focus on networks would be better as well, as leadership in academic structures still lies mainly with (associate) Deans or similar posts. A strong network and the empowerment and democratic energy it contains may be more influential than distributing leadership roles among few individuals.
      I’ll write more after I updated my knowledge of networks.
      I’ll start with the port now myself 😉

      Comment by mathehu | May 14, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] been talking about behaviour change and lots more for a bit. He’s about to start a new job has been speculating about what he might do and how it connects with what we’ve been talking about. This post is […]

    Pingback by Is there more to communities of practice? « The Weblog of (a) David Jones | May 16, 2010 | Reply

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