Streams of Consciousness on the Proliferation of Technology and Digital Spaces in Social Work

I have long enjoyed and embraced the responsibility for mentoring students. I also am not sure I like the term mentoring, sounds too much like a one way relationship, when in reality, I learn as much or more from the students that I work with, than they will ever learn from me. I am also a proponent of social media technology in social work practice and education. I believe in the power of digital communities and spaces. I have researched and written about this area often over the past year, and yet have never really thought about whether or not these innovations have limits for usefulness in social work or if they can or should be restricted at all moving forward.

Over the past year, I have been getting more and more emails and social media interactions with students from far and wide, seeking support, guidance, and mentorship, because they haven’t found it in their programs, or need support in another way (substantive area, paradigm, etc.), or are engaged in an online program. What do folks think is the future of social work in the age of technology? Will more and more social work programs turn to the hybrid model or even to an entirely online model? Will the brick and mortar institution be a relic in another 50 years or just look very different than it does today? Is online social work education good for the profession? What challenges does the increase in online formed courses, programs, degrees, etc. create for future practitioners, given the importance of human relationships and interaction in social work? And, regardless of viewpoints, is there anyway to stop online education and entirely online social work programs from becoming more and more prolific within social work education, or is this an innovation to be embraced?

How does a brick and mortar program compete with a solid online program from an accredited and well known school, that provides internship placement help, provides virtual supervision and support that is consistent or better than what many students are finding in traditional programs, and provides students with the flexibility of taking classes that better fit their increasingly nontraditional lifestyles? I hear the critiques against going entirely online with social work education, but I see this becoming more and more of a reality. Social media and technology has the potential to create dialogue and participatory environments in digital spaces that while some may not understand them, agree with them, or know how to create and maximize them, is already shaping and changing the landscape of education. Social work is traditionally slower with innovation, but it is here, and it will likely grow in leaps and bound in the upcoming years. What does this mean for faculty members? Could I eventually be able to be a member of a faculty in a school and state that I do not even live, via the virtual nature of higher education and eventually social work education? Already, meetings are often held virtually in places with different campuses separated by distance, PhD candidates in many places are receiving advising and mentoring from afar, and some places are doing dissertation defenses virtually.

Today, as I look around at many schools that I have been part of, many faculty are locked in their offices doing research most of the day as it is, spend most of their teaching prep putting together blackboard sites, and interact with colleagues physically, less and less with each passing year. Many faculty researchers have funding and support to send students or paid professionals out into the field if face to face data collection is needed. Email and social media are already how we often view proposals, provide critique, ask questions, and keep one another up to speed at many schools and programs, what is there to say that schools won’t have primarily virtual faculty at some point in the near future to work with virtual students in a virtual university or school environment? In social work practice, we are already turning more and more to technology, will online therapy, supervision, and support groups continue to grow and expand? Will social workers in the year 2050 have a virtual caseload of clients that they meet in a digital space? I and others have already written about how this is all playing out in the area of macro practice and community organization. More folks are meeting virtually, advocating and fundraising using social media, and disseminating information through online postings and podcasts.

I am not certain what the proliferation of technology, social media, and digital spaces entirely means for social work practice, education, and academia, but I do not see it becoming less over time, only growing in frequency and scope. What does this all mean for a profession like social work build upon and ethically bound by the importance of human relationships? Are we simply changing the context for which we have come to understand how human relationships are forged and built? or Are we potentially jeopardizing this professional value by becoming too reliant and bound to technology and digital spaces?

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