In recent years, issues of complexity regarding the use of technology in the social work profession have been explored from many angles. There is no doubt that technological advances have had significant impact on social work practice.
Dr. Jonathan Singer is the founder of The Social Work Podcast , a unique learning vehicle. As described on www.socialworkpodcast.com: The Social Work Podcast provides information on all things social work, including direct practice (both clinical and community organizing), research, policy, education... and everything in between. The purpose of the podcast is to present useful information in a user-friendly format. Although the intended audience is social workers, the information will be useful to anyone in a helping profession (including psychology, nursing, psychiatry, counseling, and education).”
I interviewed Dr. Singer regarding the podcast and emerging technological issues in social work practice.
1. What is a podcast?
A podcast is an audio or video file that you can subscribe to and is “pushed” to your computer/media device when a new episode is available. While audio has been available on the Web since the mid-1990s, you had to visit the site regularly to see if there was a new episode. With podcasts, the episodes come to you.
2. What prompted you to develop the Social Work Podcast?
In 2007, I was teaching a practice theories course at the University of Pittsburgh’s school of social work. I knew that the theories and ideas about integrating theory into practice would be really useful for students both in practice and for their licensure exams. I figured that the best way of archiving the material would be through audio recordings. Students wouldn’t have listened to them during the semester, so there was no point in posting them to Blackboard. I talked about the more technical side of how I developed the podcast and the Social Work Podcast Web site in a recent interview: http://www.socialworkpodcast.com/2011/01/behind-scenes-at-social-work-podcast.html.
3. Can you identify the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of the podcast initiative?
The most challenging aspect of the podcast is that it is a time-intensive effort, and I don’t have nearly the time to put into it that I’d like to. The most rewarding aspect is connecting with experts in the field, listeners from all over the world who share their social work experiences, and feeling like I’m making a valuable contribution to the social work profession.
4. What role do podcasts play in social work education and practice?
There is no published research to establish the value of podcasts in social work education. The anonymous surveys I’ve conducted with my students suggest that they really like being able to listen to podcasts, for a couple of reasons: 1) They like the break from reading. Listening to episodes, particularly for students who struggle with reading comprehension, gives them a new way to learn important information. 2) Many podcasts are interviews with leading experts. These interviews tend to bring to life concepts that, on the page, seem to be academic or impractical.
I also have anecdotal evidence from social workers in the field. Social workers say that: 1) they listened to the podcast as a way of studying for the Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Clinical licensure exams, and 2) the podcasts are portable. Social workers do a lot of home visits. The podcasts give them a way of learning something new, or re-acquainting them with ideas they might have learned but forgotten. The ultimate goal is to help social workers provide better services to clients.
5. Have you determined the extent of usage or success of the podcast in any way?
I base the “success” of the podcast on the e-mails I receive and the feedback I get from professors and students about the benefit of the podcast. The data I have tell me a lot about usage, but not much about success. I use Google Analytics and Webalizer as my main “web metrics” to get stats on the podcast. According to Google Analytics, between March 2007 and February 1, 2012, there were 500 million page views, from 200,000 unique visitors. In the past year (February 2011-February 2012) the Web site averaged 446 pageviews per day from 58,306 unique visitors. Visitors were from 166 countries/territories, stayed on the site just over 2 minutes, and 95% of visitors come from English speaking countries. I know that 2% of visitors used mobile devices like tablets or smartphones. The most popular episodes have been Stages of Change, Theories for Clinical Social Work Practice, and The Culturagram. Webalizer suggests that in the past year, I have had about 320 GB of downloads. The Social Work Podcast page on Facebook has more than 2,500 fans, and the Social Work Podcast Twitter feed has 1,600+ followers. What all this means is that since the podcast started in 2007, there has been a lot of interest in the episodes. For that, I’m grateful.
6. What are some other forms of technology that are available for use in social service delivery?
I wrote about a number of uses of technology in my chapter in The Social Worker’s Desk Reference. Agencies can get confidential feedback from consumers and other stakeholders using Web-based surveys (for example, surveymonkey.com or zoomerang.com). Community organizers use online databases to keep track of members or send out e-mail blasts to mobilize people to contact legislators via e-mail, fax, and phone. Inexpensive calling plans and computer-to-computer services like Skype have made online therapy practical and affordable. For example, a Marine in Afghanistan is questioning his sexual orientation. He fears seeking services on the base (for many reasons), so he has sessions over the phone with a therapist in the USA.
Technology has also been used to help people to help themselves. There has been some very interesting research lately on the use of text messages as a way of reminding consumers to perform certain behavioral tasks, such as complete a checklist, take medication, write a journal entry, and so forth. Applications have also been developed for smartphones that allow you to do self-guided CBT and mindfulness exercises. These applications integrate rating scales, journaling, and other aspects of the treatment, and use the smartphone environment as a way of leading the user through the treatment. This approach to services is still in its infancy, but some research has suggested that for people with mild symptomology, self-guided therapy can be as effective as therapist-guided therapy.
7. What has been your experience with other forms of online learning?
I taught my first online course in the summer of 2011. I integrated synchronous learning with asynchronous learning. Students had to attend one one-hour online class per week and participate in various off-line projects. Official student feedback about the course was very positive. I’ve consulted with people about the use of podcasts and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to create online learning communities. Faculty from the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work and I presented a faculty development institute at CSWE in 2010 on that topic.
8. What do you think the most pressing technology issue is for social workers today?
Becoming familiar with it. If you’re a social worker and you don’t know about social networking sites, then you’re missing a huge part of how people interact these days. If you’re doing couples therapy, you need to know about how Facebook and other social media affect relationships, how people use cell phones and texting, and how people use these technologies to connect with others (in either faithful or unfaithful ways). If you work with kids, you need to know that even though Facebook has a policy that only people 13 and older can create accounts, many youth under age 13 are on Facebook.
Beyond social networking, social workers need to know about what information is available on the Web. A recent study from the Pew Foundation suggested that 85% of people turn to the Internet FIRST for medical advice. If social workers are not aware of what information is available, they won’t be able to help clients differentiate good information from misinformation. Anyone who has ever had a client say, “My kid has ADHD because they took the quiz on the Novartis Web site,” knows that overcoming misinformation can be as much work as providing good information in the first place.
9. The most recent NASW Code of Ethics addresses several areas that have never been addressed before in our profession. One of these areas is technology. What are some of the ethical and legal implications of technology in social work practice?
Great question. I wrote a chapter on this topic for The Social Workers’ Desk Reference, published in 2009, called “The Role and Regulations for Technology in Social Work Practice and E-therapy: Social Work 2.0.” Perhaps the most important thing to know about that chapter is that some of the information is already out of date. The speed with which technology is changing suggests that the most basic implication is that social workers need to be mindful of how they use technology. Technological innovations used to occur once every ten or twenty years—now they occur monthly. For example, clinicians have been recording therapy sessions for decades. But the amount of time that has transpired between one technology and the next has shrunk from decades to years, e.g. reel-to-reel (20 years) > cassette (20 years) > VHS (10 years) > digital recorder (5 years) > laptop (three years) > webcam (2 years) > smart phone (1 year). Another example is the use of e-mail as a form of communication between client and clinician. When paper correspondence became electronic correspondence, ethical dilemmas arose over the risks to privacy and confidentiality. Although there are no longer concerns that checking e-mail on an agency’s secure server with a unique login is an issue, the ability to check confidential e-mail from clients using a smart phone in public, or on a laptop over an unsecured Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop, presents new ethical dilemmas. Should clinicians “Google” their clients if they are on an unsecure connection? Should they Google their clients at all, regardless of whether the Internet connection is secure?
Social networking sites such as Facebook also present ethical issues for clinical social workers. For example, what should clinicians do if they realize that a friend on their social network is friends with their client? What ethical issues can be addressed by changing privacy settings, and what issues can only be resolved by the clinician deactivating his or her Facebook account? If a clinician is the only social worker in a school setting, and is aware of cyberbullying, should the clinician be required by administration to be Facebook friends with all students in the school in order to have access to information that might help intervention? Should social workers provide e-therapy to treat Internet addiction? These are just a few of the ethical dilemmas that today’s social workers find themselves addressing.
10. Speaking of cyberbullying, one of your most recent peer-reviewed publications appeared in the NASW journal Children and Schools regarding cyberbullying. Is there a “best practice” for working with families or kids experiencing cyberbullying?
There is no “best practice” for cyberbullying. Some recommendations for parents include: 1) monitoring youths’ Internet usage, 2) recognizing that cell phones are Internet machines with keypads, and 3) finding out if their child’s school has a cyberbullying policy. If not, work with the administration to develop one. Some recommendations for youth include: 1) recognize that once you post a message or photo to the Internet via e-mail, social networking site like Facebook, or even a text message via cell phone, you have no control over what happens to that photo or text, 2) take control over who has access to your information by limiting your network in your privacy settings, and 3) use the same common sense online as you do offline regarding friendships or sharing information.
Claudia J. Dewane, D.Ed., LCSW, is an associate professor in the College of Health Professions and Social Work, Temple University. She received a doctorate in adult education and health psychology from Penn State University and Master of Social Work from Columbia University. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, maintains Board Certified Diplomate status in Clinical Social Work, and has a Certificate in Advanced Clinical Supervision. She is the founder of Clinical Support Associates, providing supervision, consultation, and training to professional social workers. She has presented numerous workshops on clinical, supervisory, and ethical issues in social work. She worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for several years. Her clinical work has been in the areas of PTSD and military sexual trauma.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Spring 2012, Vol. 19, No. 2. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher/editor for permission to reprint/reproduce.