By: Marshall L. Smith, PhD
Editor’s Note: I would like to personally thank Marshall Smith for bringing so many technology issues to the forefront in this column over the past ten years. As he retires from writing the column, he leaves us with a view of what to expect in the years to come. Thank you, Marshall!
I have written this column for almost ten years, and as I approach this last installment, it is time for me to pass the responsibility on to someone else. I thought it would be a good opportunity to review the predictions being made about the future relationship of social work (both education and practice) and technology. In preparing for this, I asked my social work education colleagues who think about these things. The responses I received were from the leading technology experts in the field of social work education. Their comments, predictions, hopes, and fears are included in this column. It is my pleasure and honor to have worked with all of them on various projects over my career and I share their words with you as my farewell aloha gift.
Likely Technology Developments
Almost unanimously, social work education technology experts agree that now is the time to continue focusing on the ways that faculty and students interact around and use technology.
Paul Freddollino, of Michigan State University, believes that
for the next three to five years, the biggest impact of technology in social work will continue to be in education rather than practice. This will include expanded use of technology in social work continuing education and professional development. In five years, perhaps, there will be a critical mass of more experienced practitioners who encounter technology through social work education and continuing education, together with younger practitioners who have been maturing along with technology. Put this critical mass of practitioners together with Web 2.0 cloud computing tools, and by 2013 the next generation of Web-based tools, and you will finally see more widespread development and use of technology supported tools in social work practice. Bottom line, though, is that social work practice will still remain a follower, not a leader, among the professions.
Kim Fielding, of Missouri State University, reminds us of Alvin Toffler’s term coined in his book The Third Wave, “prosumer.” Fielding believes that the skills students learn in the online learning environment have the potential to expand to clients later on. She believes that what students learn during their education will
reduce the perceived distance between instructor and students. As a result, students not only consume in the learning-centered venue, they are producers as other students benefit through vicarious learning. All those discussion postings and shared papers create a wonderful array of dynamic feedback loops. Various media help reduce the gaps in time and space. Shared cognition and empathy can sensitize students to expect similar processes beyond graduation. What was modeled during the educational journey can transfer into practice settings as social workers are accustomed to peer collaboration and input from others. I hope such “disciplinary habits of mind” due to social work distance education learning environments expands to include clients as prosumers.
Distance education is a growing presence in social work education with the economic pressures on students making it extremely difficult to attend campus-based degree programs, let alone the conflicts between students’ commitments to their families and work and the scheduling of class meeting days and times. As Philip Ouellette, of Indiana University, observes,
I believe the future role of technology in social work education will become increasingly important. Every year, I observe how financial challenges create difficulty for students to maintain a high degree of involvement in both graduate and undergraduate programs in social work. A traditional on-campus training program is becoming more and more a financial burden for many students, especially those with families and other financial obligations.
Our challenge as social work educators is to move beyond bickering about technological advances and take a serious look at how to deliver training in a more efficient and cost effective manner and to an increasing number of students. I believe that the use of technology is key to the ongoing development of our profession and to its future existence. If we continue to think that social work training cannot be offered online, the profession will disappear as a viable human service profession serving the needs of the disadvantaged and the underserved. Putting limited resources in traditional bricks and mortar infrastructure projects and focusing attention on the importance of the reduction of classroom sizes may make our programs less efficient and cost prohibitive. Over time, we will be replaced by other human service professions who dare to innovate. With increasing social problems in the U.S., including those created by the current financial crisis, there is a need to train competent social workers more now than ever before. Consumers’ difficulties in accessing social work services due to increased costs from traditional service delivery formats and methods, our students will not be able to practice what we preach in our social work training programs. Today’s technology in higher education is not only possible, it is a viable solution.
Bob Rivas, of Siena College, sees a parallel between how technology has transformed communication and collaboration between baccalaureate social work educators and how technology radically changed the political climate of the recent presidential election:
If students want to know what the future of technology in social work is, we have seen it in the recent presidential election, and we have seen it bring tremendous change to the landscape of this country. I can’t help thinking that this is a product and a process of this next generation (and massive numbers of young voters who have great hope for the future), but that we educators, too, are part of it. Baccalaureate social work educators have used a simple E-mail listserv as a powerful tool of community organization for fourteen years, and as a method for changing social work education. We have seen this in the election, as well as though the listserv.
Jerry Finn, of the University of Washington, Tacoma, a long-time observer of online support groups, writes in his recent article on online therapy that much work still lies ahead in the development of both the techniques and the structure needed to facilitate this activity:
It is estimated that in 2006, 73% of adults in the U.S. accessed the Internet, and they are increasingly using it for support in social and health-related matters. As more people use the Internet, human service organizations will need to determine to what extent they will engage in online therapeutic and other services. They will need to create policies and procedures to promote compliance with their decisions. For those who do offer online services, it will require creating secure systems, training workers in online communication, creating policies regarding what services may be offered online by whom, developing policies for handling both expected and unsolicited e-mail, creating record keeping procedures for online communications, and evaluating the impact of their online services. In addition, legal issues related to online practice across state lines will need to be resolved. This may involve development of national standards and national licensure for online practice.
Finn also indicates that the development of new services and advocacy for social policies to promote social and economic justice is fast becoming a reality. He sees the following examples as already existing:
Online advocacy groups able to mobilize tens of thousands of people through the Internet.
Online fundraising to fund advocacy projects and innovative services.
Distributed policy development —e.g., a Wikipedia-type service to write and improve social policies.
One-on-one support—e.g., every foster child aging out of the system will have an online mentor.
Professionally moderated online self-help groups to promote safe mutual aid/self-help.
24/7 online crisis/help lines for issues such as sexual assault, self-harm, domestic violence, PTSD, teen run-away, and substance abuse support
Whereas these experts see positive developments on the horizon for social work education, they also have some fears for the future. Ouellette thinks that the social work profession needs to be very careful not to place ourselves in a financially uncompetitive position:
…due to the increased cost of traditionally-delivered social work education programs, training is slowly becoming a training program for the well-to-do. For the less fortunate who wish to enter our profession and who want to engage in a quality social work training program for all the right reasons based on the values our profession stands for and based on our profession’s rich tradition is being challenged by another reality. That is, the return on investment or ROI. How can we expect graduate social work students to accumulate such financial debt for a job that often pays less than that of a blue collar tradesman? Many non-professional employment opportunities have better ROI value for their training programs than that of social work. This is supported by the fact that financial aid organizations today will not provide student loans if the ROI looks poor. Social work certainly fits that category. This fact is especially relevant in our current global financial climate.
Ouellette goes on to say
The only thing that worries me is not about how to train with technology but rather when we will do it. At the present rate of development on the integration of technology in our profession, progress is bleak, it’s slow, it lacks inter-university collaboration, it’s way too competitive, and lots of unnecessary duplication of effort is going on. In addition, the use of technology in social work is developed mostly in isolation by a certain few who dare to challenge the status quo. Every time I go to a social work conference or school program committee meetings, I still hear arguments on such trivial matters as whether or not a certain course should be offered only in the classroom, in a hybrid format, or totally online. We still cannot figure out how to charge an affordable tuition rate for courses offered online to students everywhere. We still argue about which course management system is better than another for teaching online, as if it has anything to do with pedagogy and instructional design. In addition to these arguments, few rewards and incentives are provided for innovation and creativity. In fact, I think the opposite is occurring for many of my colleagues. Greater financial incentives are provided to teach summer classes in the classroom for a few well-to-do students than for developing new and creative ways to teach through and with technology to serve a greater number of students. By the time our profession wakes up to the technological reality of our times, my biggest fear is that social work as a profession will dwindle into oblivion and will be remembered only as a “has been” profession of do-gooders who meant to do great work but lacked the fortitude, persistence, and vision to pursue innovation to meet the client needs of the future. What a shame that will be.
Freddollino echoes Ouellette’s concerns but is equally worried about the possible situation of not being careful enough in our assessment of the technology we adopt:
My deepest fear is that the nay-sayers and skeptics will be successful in preventing fair tests of technology-based or technology supported social work interventions, basing their opposition on the highest ethical principles, no doubt; the absence of data will then spell the end of many potentially useful interventions. If I am wrong about this and there is an expansion in such technology models, however, the deepest fear will be the wholesale, uncritical acceptance of technology-related interventions regardless of data to support the model and without alternate emergency procedures.
Supporting Freddollino’s concerns about the need for research, Jo Ann R. Coe Regan says
There is a need to develop a coherent body of knowledge to support the delivery of teaching in technology-enhanced learning environments for future social work education. Furthermore, implications for students and faculty engaged in teaching and learning in these learning environments (i.e., increased surveillance by administrators, online assessment of courses) also needs to be explored. Web-based learning environments can allow for a class or entire course to be recorded and packaged in such a way so the instructor could be completely out of the picture. All of these issues need to be addressed as they have ominous aspects for the future of social work education.
Finn, referring to the French computer scientist Jacques Vallee’s predictions in the late 1970s, describes the “Digital Society” as
a data-driven, centralized, society in which personal privacy all but disappeared through development of large databases that cross-referenced all information related to the individual including health, education, employment, communications, and even shopping choices. The development of super computers and cheap storage makes this society a possibility. Social work practice must include monitoring the development of such applications and advocating against them.
Gary Holden, of New York University, is extremely skeptical of where our current emphasis on distance education and computer mediated learning is leading us. He offered these observations:
I’ve thought a fair amount about distance education (and realize that in more geographically dispersed locales it has more appeal). For me, telepresence isn’t presence, and while there are the hypercommunication qualities created by technology (rapid seeming intimacy in e-mail) it may be intense but fleeting. The only explanation that I have come up with is that the possibility of touch and smell is missing.
I did a major multi-site study in the early/mid 90s with over 100 investigators in eight cities. Much of the work was done by conference call and you could tell when people drifted off—it was just too much to focus for an hour on some visualization of the meeting beyond the voices.
I think the first few courses via DE may hold folks’ attention quite well, but what will it be like when it is the thirtieth course (and it’s a required one, and the spouse is watching a loud ball game, and the kids are making noise and the dog is barking)?
But the future is not all bleak. These same experts have high hopes for the continued development of our profession utilizing technological applications. Ouellette is working on the development of possible models for service delivery online that will both deliver effective and ethical services to clients. His dream
is to see social work education and social work practice move toward the innovative and creative use of technology as a realistic alternative to current service delivery methods. I even see direct services and professional therapeutic services offered through the creative use of technology and advanced communication networks. But first we must learn how to train with technology before we can expect to expand service delivery in a technology-supported environment. Presently, I am working on creating a virtual aid organization to serve the needs of individuals, families, and groups. The prototype I am currently developing will allow for social work practitioners to deliver their services online and/or access technology-supported tools that would enhance the delivery of their services, as well as making them more cost efficient. In addition, this virtual aid organization could also be used to provide additional field work training opportunities for students experiencing difficulties accessing a quality internship experience due to the financial challenges many agencies are experiencing today. Increased cutbacks and limited insurance coverage result in decreased programming and reduced manpower. This is a reality now, not something in the future. We not only need to develop better online training opportunities; we also need to think about how to serve clients through the creative use of today’s technology.
Freddolino calls for more research into the question of technology-enhanced service delivery and hopes that
there will be a considerable increase in research and evaluation related to the use of new models of technology-related social work practice. In the absence of hard data to examine outcomes, impacts, and total costs, it will be extremely difficult to reach widespread expansion of technology in practice. If such data were available—and assuming it will show considerable net-positive, cost-effective models of technology-related social work practice—it would enable an expanded attention to a wide range of technology related interventions.
Finn indicates that much of the future is already here and uses Vallee’s notion of the “grapevine society” to illustrate his point. This concept refers to the situation
in which everyone has access to everyone else and to all the information. We are already seeing this through the development of easy-to-use search engines, virtual communities, and thousands of online self-help groups. In addition, traditional practice is becoming more “distributed” as therapists are going online with e-therapy practice through chat and e-mail, and social agencies are beginning to use e-mail in communicating with their consumers. (See all the MSWs on http://www.LivePerson.com.) In the near future, real-time video-based computer communications will be widely available, enhancing service delivery and removing some of the assessment and treatment downside barriers to current online practice. The promise is more readily available, improved, and less expensive service delivery....
Finally, Philip Ng, of the University of Rochester, the programming expert behind the BEAP Project, has some thoughts on the future of social work and/or computing in general:
I foresee a continuation in the focus of mobile devices that will allow social workers to better review case files and improvements in technologies that will let social workers keep their heads above water. There have been some interesting examples in the creation of new applications for the humble iPhone, which help in general record keeping. There is a new EMR (electronic medical record system) on these devices!
The facilitation of remote tele-assistance—with the advent of $2.50 web cameras from China, and the continuing reduction of cost in computing, I can foresee an era where telephones can help facilitate face-to-face communications with clients, especially in far-flung rural settings.
Centralization of databases—I can see that the myriad of assistance grants and governmental services will be aggregated to allow for a better palette of tools to help social workers help their clients.
With the first two points above, I can see how rural social workers can create networks for mutual support for their clients—something which is easy to create in a city but difficult elsewhere.
Databases can be set up to facilitate better predictive strategies to see trends and predict solutions ahead of time, allowing for a more real-time approach to understanding needs.
With all that is in store, the future will yield a better, more empowered social work profession, but the social worker of tomorrow has much more in common with the social worker of today. I can simply see an improvement of the tools in assisting her/him to perform everyday tasks, with the focus still firmly planted in helping those who need it the most.
I think all of these colleagues have some grasp of the truth. As a profession, we need to focus our attention on addressing the issues they have raised for us as systemic issues rather than some educators focusing on new approaches to distance education, some practitioners focusing on ways to provide services over the Internet, and some policy experts emphasizing influencing state and national elected officials and lawmakers. Advancement of our profession and the welfare of our clients must be addressed by us all—clinicians, policy advocates, group workers, field and practicum coordinators and supervisors, educators, and community organizers. I have truly enjoyed my career journey to this point, and I will now watch from the sidelines while the rest of you carry out the tasks ahead. I hope to send in an observation or two now and then.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to the long list of social workers and technology experts who have nurtured the development of applications that facilitate the work we all share. In addition to the contributors to this column, mentioned in the text above, here’s my list of our technological pioneers in no special order. (My apologies in advance to any obvious people I have overlooked or forgotten.): Bob Vernon, Darlene Lynch, Steve Marson, Dennis Cogswell, Carol Williams, Walter Hudson, Dick Schoech, Walter LaMendola, Mary Richmond, Irene Queiro-Tajalli, Alan Knowles, Goutham Menon, Frank Raymond, Santos Hernandez, Curtis J. Bonk, Therese LaFerriere, Akbar Del Piambo, Joanne Yaffe, Thomasine Heitkamp, Bud Hansen, Jan Steyaert, Stuart Toole, Jackie Rafferty, Cathy Pike, Michael Berghoef, Ogden Rogers, Simon Mielniczuk, Gabrielli Rossini, Ginny Cruz, Lynn Adkins, Debra Gohagen, Nathan Chang, Harry Chaiklin, Todd Lennon, John McNutt, Bill Butterfield, Lisa Gebo, Diane Falk....
Marshall L. Smith, PhD, MSW, is Professor and Program Coordinator for Distance Education at the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work, University of Hawaii at Manoa. This is his final official Electronic Connection column.