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Use and application of social media in social work and social care education

Bear with me for a bit as I am going back into my personal work history to go forward to the use of social media in social work.  This opinion piece also focuses solely on social work education rather than including social care and deals with the broader technology/learning landscape before coming back to social media. I am far less familiar with social care training (and the two terms: ‘education’ and ‘training’, are worth an opinion piece in themselves).

In 1989 I was working on a nationally funded project, the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI). My job was to find out what technology was being used in higher education and the ‘human services’ and travel the length and breadth of the UK persuading social work educators that this ‘new’ technology was to be taken seriously and needed to be embedded in social work student learning. I liked the term ‘human services’ it was wider than social work and with my roots in community development it made sense to me, it also reflected my propensity towards strength based work, the power of groups and collective action.

The human service practitioner is a professional who acts as an agent to assist and or empower individuals, groups, families and communities to prevent, alleviate or better cope with crisis, change and stress to enable them to function more effectively in all areas of life and living”. (Lincoln University, Pennsylvania)

I started by finding out what was going on in the world of the use of technology in higher education, there was lots: a whole alphabet soup of policies, projects, initiatives. Discussion and debate as to whether CBT (Computer Based Training) was passé and CBL was the name of the game (Computer Based Learning) or whether we should be moving on to emphasise the computer less and the learning more (e-learning), and was that with or without an hyphen? At the same time I cast around to see where technology was being used in social work practice.

We already had clunky ‘client’ information systems in local authorities but where were the exciting innovative empowering uses? I found some. The Women’s Institute group in rural mid Wales using UseNet and GreenNet to comment on UN policies on women. The two guys who had worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau and in 1987 set up a company (early social enterprise?) and developed a Psion based welfare benefits calculation system, still trading  22 years later as Ferret Information Systems[i] (at that time social work qualifying courses still taught welfare benefits).

My Centre  set up a website, held a database of resources, ran workshops, visited universities, published a journal, wrote papers and newsletters, brokered and networked. The Centre ran for 10 years and was independently evaluated in 1994 and 1999 as highly successful, but long term change, not a lot. We were going around with a near empty shopping bag, there was very little in the way of e-learning resources that were social work curriculum specific. So we started to develop materials under another acronymed initiative: TLTP – Technology Learning and Teaching Programme. Did some great stuff firstly on 3.5″ floppy disks, then CDs and finally the web, with teacher’s notes and everything. But for all the talk in higher education the infrastructure and teaching approaches had not caught up. We found one university where in 1997 the only computers were a small collection of Amstrads, Apricots and BBC microcomputers in a basement room half a mile across campus from where the social work students were.

Gradually the universities created the role of Learning Technologist and their time was spent converting written materials in to interactive e-learning and supposedly supporting academics to make use of the technology in their teaching. In reality often putting lecture notes into electronic format and many spent more time supporting academics in getting their printers to work.

With the advent of the Web and the realisation that source material could be found we quickly moved to the notion of RBL (Resource Based Learning) which paired better with the idea of a constructivist pedagogic model that was gaining ground, variously called RBL or Enquiry Based Learning or Problem Based Learning. There was an underpinning assumption in all of this that learning through technology would be cheaper than traditional ways of learning. Millions upon millions were spent to prove it and when they couldn’t, to examine how they could.  It was all about content at that time, interactivity was claimed if the learner was asked a question onscreen and had the opportunity to select from a multiple choice answer. I know because we did that too.

In reality some social work educators were using e-resources as a bolt on, or replacement, for what they had always done. E-learning is a trojan horse. To use it effectively you have to deconstruct what you are doing and rethink it totally. Power changes hands. You are no longer the expert with learners sitting at your feet waiting for your words of wisdom, they go and find sources you don’t know about, ideas that you haven’t thought about. This led to some terrible phrases in the educational technology literature – such as “Moving from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side”. Regardless of bad phrases, that I was also guilty of using, the power shift was and is revolutionary and still not understood by the majority of those teaching and learning in universities. Those who understood often become creative innovators aiding  and abetting student learning; spending time that was and is often seen as less of a priority by those who think academics should prioritise bidding and undertaking research or enterprise activities. I am not suggesting research should not be done, but, I do wish the research funders would really count pedagogic research. Then there were those that used the understanding to strengthen their defences to teaching encroaching on research time and stepped right away and continued to use courier font overhead acetates (well, OK they may have moved to Powerpoint). My biases are showing but this is an opinion piece.

Anyway for me it was a natural progression to think we needed to work on the whole approach to learning, not just that part that is supported by technology, thus my rationale for bidding for the Centre that has just come to an end after 11 years, the Higher Education Academy for Social Work and Social Policy (SWAP) which started in 2000.

Time warp to 2004. The new social work degree is born. The powers that be (Department of Health with other key stakeholders) got round a table and decided what had to be in the degree. DH requirements that are still in force until the new regulations are introduced in August 2012. They looked at what was happening in allied qualifying professional programmes and discovered that Nurses were having to gain the European Computer Driving Licence[ii], ooh goody we will have some of that.  I got invited to the meeting that talked about making ECDL a requirement and argued vehemently that learning to word process, develop a spreadsheet and a database were not the way to go. I lost[iii].

Yet this was the first time that there was some recognition that technology skills were needed in social work education and practice. And this is the crux of this piece which I have taken an inordinately long time to get to. There is a disjointedness between the energy and effort that is being expended in higher education on using technology to ‘transform’ the learning experience (another phrase we will live to regret no doubt); the technology skills that employers say they want from social workers (ie word processing and how to use the complex relational database that holds service user, monitoring and audit information); and what I think is needed which is to mirror in social work skills and understanding the reality of the use of technology in the world we now live in.

So we need to differentiate and expand our thinking from technology skills for learning and employment: how to word process, search the web, use PowerPoint, enter data into databases, etc.; through where I think we are now with its focus on digital literacy (the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, analyze and present information using digital technology) to having the skills and being able to understand the opportunities and risks of engaging as social worker practitioners, students and educators, with society: including communities, service users, other professionals, managers and policy makers; through multiple channels of communication.

There are numerous conferences and projects about the use of social media in Universities but I suspect social work education, apart from a few social work semi-nerds like me, are not aware of the amount of work going in to the marketisation of social and mobile learning, mainly I think to attract international students. There are group discussion facilities on most virtual learning environments but I suspect rarely used. I was told yesterday of a university where social work students had set up a Facebook page for course participants and had been told by their tutor that it was too dangerous. Though, in my opinion, the more enlightened programme head said that she thought it was a great idea, but, needed to get the privacy settings right.

We still need content but communication and collaboration is to the fore and I now use social media tools like Twitter, to share information;  to ask others’ opinions; to find out information and facts; to say what I think and to see what others are thinking; to find like minded people and contrary minded people; to reflect and to develop and test ideas and to work together. The focus is on relationship and trust building. So what do we teach social work students. We touch on much of the above list but not very often in the context of social media.

A true story follows. Two students placed in Leaving Care project placements. Both agencies had policies of following up care leavers periodically. In one agency the approach was to write to the care leaver at three monthly intervals to their last known address. I do not know what the response rate is but I suspect it is not very high. In the other agency they have ‘got’ social media, or so they think, as it is an acceptable practice to look up a care leaver’s Facebook page and if they are active there then that is a positive sign that all is well. I asked the student in the first agency whether she could think of alternative ways to contact the care leaver. I asked the student in the second agency if the care leaver had given permission to be checked up on in this way. Whether the student had ever had a conversation about internet safety and the maze of Facebook’s privacy settings? Whether the agency had ever discussed the ethics of this approach? Whether the care leaver had asked to befriend her on her Facebook and if that happened what would be her response? The GSCC have just published a guide to Professional Boundaries with  a nifty animated student exercise version too. The only mention of technology I have spotted is in Example 6 about an offensive email being passed around. It is a start but not nearly enough.

We are about to experience another seismic shift in England in social work education as the work of the Social Work Task Force and subsequent Reform Board is implemented. There will not be a prescribed curriculum but there has been some, still in draft, guidance, written about key areas to cover in some topics. For instance the one on Communication includes “….. Writing and ICT skills can be taught as core skills, or integrally in other curriculum areas. Guidance about the appropriate use of social networking sites should be given.” Embedding technology skill learning  is what we argued for in 2005 as an alternative to the ECDL.  The guidance is a small step for social work kind and there is much more to do.  @profsuewhite and I have raised this issue with the College of Social Work. The College intends to develop virtual communities of practice as a significant way of developing networks. This is both an opportunity and a huge challenge. In the maelstrom of changes that are happening in higher education, social work practice alongside lower cost mobile web access there are possibilities to influence and change how learning happens


1.  My one claim to fame is that I wrote the position paper that supported the decision to drop the ECDL requirement in 2010. It was hugely time consuming, expensive, mechanistic and there were fraught issues to do with what happened if you didn’t pass all the modules, did that mean you could not become a qualified social worker.

2.  Building skills into the social work curriculum: A guide to meeting the requirement for social work students to achieve information and communication technology skills, Judith Holt & Jackie Rafferty SWAP, 2005.

Jackie Rafferty (@jaxrafferty) is Director of Social Policy and Social Work Subject Centre at Higher Education Academy, and the Director of Social Work Technology Research, Development and Educational Centre at University of Southampton

Join our Live Twitter Debate on “Use and Applications of Social Media in Social Work and Social Care Education”:

Topic:  Use and Applications of Social Media in Social Work and Social Care Education
Date:    Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Time:    8:00 to 9:00 PM (London)    3:00 to 4:00 PM (New York)
Follow @SWSCmedia for further details and updates and don’t forget the hashtag for the debate #SWSCmedia



6 thoughts on “Use and application of social media in social work and social care education

  1. Really impressive and useful piece about the history and context of social media (and technology) in social work education. I do feel we might be on the verge of a new wave of knowledge building and sharing and universities have to keep up to be at the forefront in case some of us practitioners, rush past 🙂 Interesting times, indeed.

    Posted by ermintrude2 | November 28, 2011, 6:51 am
  2. Thanks Jackie, a really useful overview. I appreciate the context, the history and the reality check. Looking forward to the debate,in the meantime you inspired me to write

    Posted by George Julian | November 28, 2011, 11:42 pm
  3. Wow. That was a great read (probably says something about me) but it is amazing that much of the history you provide remains relevant today. I think SW struggles with the concept of social media, having recently came into HE from practice I still think that HE has a broader definition of social work, to use a “bad phrase” a helicopter view, having this gives greater permission to look at social media and how it can be used. Practice based settings emphasise the strengths of the human relationship and percieve the face to face element as being of greater importance. In some ways I think that HE’s can be more altruistic about SW having, at their core, and educative function. Practice settings are less so and need greater encouragement to see and utilise the benefits social media provides. I think there are huge opportnities for practice based settings to use social media as a tool that is central to their approach but in the current economic climate I think they are understandably preoccupied with getting the service out the door and safeguarding jobs and services. It feels like we are on a long slow road but I believe there are real benefits to be had. the real one lies with practice based settings seeing the inherent value on social media and becoming willing to integrate it into service delivery. For this to happen there will need to be a real obvious pay off as it’s likely there will be little in the way of new resources to support it.

    Posted by davidmckendrick (@bonklesoul) | November 29, 2011, 8:54 am
    • Thanks for comments above – it is great to get such positive feedback on my first blog. I would really recommend reading George’s posts linked in the comment above and the other posts from Dorlee and Martin as well as @ermintrude2 http://

      David – I think you are absolutely right that we need to show both the opportunities and risks for agencies to get involved in social media. However I don’t think the profession has a choice in understanding the impact on practice of how people communicate relate, shop, access services, pay bills etc. online.That physically frail person living on their own appearing to be very socially isolated may be involved in a web of online relationships and services that may be serving them well or be part of the problem.

      Posted by Jackie Rafferty | November 29, 2011, 10:42 am


  1. Pingback: Social Media and Social Care/ Work Education | Connecting Social Care and Social Media - November 28, 2011

  2. Pingback: Social media for social care – let’s not forget personalisation « George Blogs - November 28, 2011

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