When Covid-19 took hold of the country, the uncertainty and unease felt amongst students was evident across the various social media platforms. Student placement learning opportunities were suddenly at risk due to safety measures that left placements paused or cancelled. Universities were required to develop virtual learning methods in order to provide some continuity for their students, practice educators were bound by the relevant local authority health and safety protocols regarding the safety of students remaining in statutory or third sector placements. Students that had existing health conditions themselves had to shield and were now in the unchartered territory of not being able to leave their home at all, for learning or work purposes. It was clear that learning and practice opportunities were beginning to change.
When a crisis hits, it is perhaps easy to go into panic mode. It is unlikely that any individual, from student through to educator, has experienced the adjustments to everyday life that quickly became the ‘norm’. It has, therefore, been crucial for students to retain a sense of calm amongst the pressures of a new way of learning; using a creative approach to stay connected within a virtual world, the new reality surrounding them.
Amongst the chaos and confusion, much respected social work academic, practice educator and accomplished writer Siobhan Maclean reached out to students virtually, starting a conversation on Twitter, creating a focus for students with a Covid-created restless energy. Siobhan had identified a need to support students but in return needed their support to nurture her inner technophobe! From this, a new kind of group work was created. Eight students from across the UK came forward, all undertaking different courses or routes into the profession; and rather than referencing (Maclean, 2015) entered into a conversation with her instead! Ideas were discussed virtually; skill sets were identified based on a ‘willingness to try our best attitude’ and relationships were formed without ever being in the same physical presence of one another. Enthusiastic, determined zoom chats in gardens, bedrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms became the new norm! The variety of viewpoints helped to push the project forward, and in less than two weeks after the initial meeting, the trial for the first webinar titled ‘The Social Work Theory Fear Factor’ had been held, roles had been allocated and the first webinar received over 900 sign ups. How’s that for Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing? (The adjourning was to come later – don’t think we’ve forgotten!)
For those on the team that have been on placement or working in social care throughout the pandemic; it has been easier to identify the restrictions and impact Covid-19 has had with regard to ability to practice in a way that matches our learning. The restrictions on assessing people face to face and supporting decisions in their lives has proved difficult. Covid-19 is changing the social work profession and the way in which people train and practice. It has been disconcerting at times to see the way in which learning opportunities and the delivery of social work has changed. However, the virus has also shown the resourcefulness of social workers and students due to their willingness to work together. Collaborating to create a change not just for the individuals we work with but also professionals we work alongside. It has shown that learning opportunities can come from where you least expect them (even Twitter) and that with a bit of momentum and a lot of enthusiasm, a simple idea can become a fantastic working project.
The first webinar was titled ‘The Social Work Theory Fear Factor’ and the second ‘Reflective Practice in Social Work: Stages, Spaces and Structures’. The first few weeks were extremely busy – and at times it seemed like our phones might explode! Yet there were still moments for reflection. We found that we could easily get caught up in the excitement of the project; therefore, missing the opportunity to reflect on what we had achieved so far or were striving to work towards. Some days it felt like we were driving a car at 100mph without taking any notice of the beautiful scenery along the way! Enthusiasm was in abundance, but the outcome required fine tuning until we could begin to enjoy the journey.Siobhan’s experience led her to ‘virtually’ identify each of our strengths and approaches, bringing a sense of calm to a somewhat excitable bunch of individuals!
Considering the way in which we initially connected with one another; we have used our social work skills to build relationships, providing strength and support for one another within the team but also to a new online community. Maintaining a positive approach within the team has come naturally, yet has been instrumental in the team’s development and the ‘feel’ of the webinars – perhaps a lesson for us all to take forward into practice?
An important part of our team’s journey was to identify our shortfalls – we have got much left to do to ensure that our performance echoes our social work practice. While it is certainly true that we are a diverse group of individuals when our background and skills are considered, our representation and mix of diversity with regard to ethnic and gender identity is not where we would like it to be yet. This is an area where we hope to improve and are hopeful that by welcoming guest speakers and regular followers to the webinars more students will want to join our team. Students from around the world have begun to attend and contact Siobhan personally, these newly formed connections born out of the webinars have led us to talking to social work students as far afield as Iraq – amazing opportunities born out of Covid constraints.
It certainly feels that this is just the beginning of the journey, both for the project as a whole and the individual members that make up the team. We have seen that the academics and professionals we look up to as students are as real as the people we support. They sometimes need extra pairs of eyes and ears to help them problem solve, and our student status can prove to be the refreshing viewpoint that is required to reach a shared destination on any given learning journey. We have learnt much from Siobhan, as we knew we would, and for that we will always be grateful. But this was never about us, it was about what we could collectively achieve if we could connect with others, and now the connection has been made – the outcomes are endless. Covid-19 may be restricting our physical ability to do so many things, but it is not restricting our ability to co-produce and communicate – we just had to learn how to stretch our learning and be a little bit more active, a little bit more creative, a little bit more like our mentors!
From Siobhan’s perspective
My eldest daughter lives in China and so Covid19 has been a part of my family’s life and discussions for the whole of this year. My daughter had been sending me regular messages about what social workers were doing in China in response to the pandemic and yet on World Social Work Day when I went into a shielded lockdown, I felt completely unprepared.
I must admit to having been a technophobe who felt that online learning was something to be avoided. I couldn’t see how online options could be anything other than instructional and I have prided myself on making my sessions more and more interactive and multi-sensory over the years. I had heard about webinars but just saw this as a made-up word and didn’t explore it any further. I have reflected extensively since on the dangers of surface learning.
Watching the students that I follow on Twitter talking about their experiences of suspended placements and lost learning opportunities I wanted to do something to help but felt effectively paralysed. What could I offer? I started by offering free access to some online resources but felt that this didn’t give me any connections beyond the initial emails from students about the resources. I reached out and asked if there were any students who might be able to help me with webinars. The story from that point from the student perspective is above. Whilst I agree with what they say, from my perspective I would like to add a couple of points.
Talking about co-production for many years and working from a user focused, student led perspective as a practice educator, this experience has reinforced for me why co-production is so important and reminded me about many aspects of adult learning. Effectively the tables have been turned. I have been reminded about the importance of patience and support in helping people to learn. As a group they have been amazingly patient when I have asked the same questions over and over and they keep on repeating things until I have got it. This week I have been struggling with what to include in the webinar presentation and how to structure it. I said so in the WhatsApp group we use and the advice I got back was brilliant. Their reflective questioning was helpful, and I said that it was just like I was the student and they were the practice educator, but really this absolutely is about a truly shared learning experience.
When I am training face to face, I always look to ‘the audience’ to give me an idea about how things are going. Talking only to a camera or to a screen for the last few months has really impacted on my confidence and my abilities. Being able to see the students on screen when I am delivering a presentation at the webinars has been so helpful to me. I don’t think I have said this to them, but I am sure they know and that they exaggerate their facial expressions to help!
I have been ‘home alone’ during the lockdown as my husband is working away. Initially I worried about becoming isolated, but this group have given me more than just professional support. Whilst I am a strong advocate of professional boundaries between students and practice educators, where there is no responsibility of assessment, those boundaries no longer matter. I consider this group who I have never formally ‘met’ new colleagues. Having worked independently for many years I often miss the feeling of being part of a team. Quite strangely while we are in lockdown and the potential for feeling isolated is exaggerated, I reflected over the weekend as I was struggling to develop the content for the next webinar that I feel more part of a team than I have for many years. Indeed, I feel that I have a new group of friends.
We have heard and read recently a significant devaluation of students. For example, Helen Whately Care Minister stated that nursing students are ‘not deemed to be providing a service’. I know that some students have been given messages about placements being suspended because providers don’t have the time to support them, students have been told to consider themselves lucky to have a placement and advised not to ‘mither’ people who are busy. All of this implies that students have little to offer us and that they are ‘hard work’. We must reflect, as a profession, on the messages we are giving to the next generation of practitioners.
In my initial tweet I suggested that it might help students provide evidence of leadership skills for their practice educators. They have certainly led me effectively and based on the feedback we are getting from all over the world, I know that others agree. Students are the future of our profession and it is in good hands!
The Social Work Student Connect Team with Siobhan Maclean are, in alphabetical order:
Becky Salter, Catherine Rundle, Christine Norman, Emma Grady, Kelly Bentley-Simon, Kerry Sildatke, Mary Carter, and Omar Mohamed.
Twitter handle: @SW_Student_con