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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Simon Hall

“Am I on mute?” Social work, technology and the pandemic

I’ve always wondered if (as JFK said) the Chinese really do have two brush strokes that make up the symbol for crisis- one for danger and one for opportunity. I’m fairly sure that it’s not true but it’s a nice idea. Somewhere within it is a message for all of us. Social work is embedded within the idea of relationship based practice and there has always been something about being in the room with people. This could have that as a profession it might not have embraced technology in the same way as others.

So this is a story of the tensions between the old and the new. George Monbiot talks of how stories define our political landscape. This is one where we might find that the old lines are redrawn. You might find that there are certain points where, well the story and your understanding depends upon your context. So as Max Bygraves (told you so) would say “I wanna tell you a story”. It’s also unashamedly my story.

As with all of the best stories it’s a bit of a cliff hanger and there are probably more questions than answers. In this context we were faced with a challenge. On March 23rd our skills assessments were due to start with our first year students. They had to complete a 20 minute role play simulation with an expert by experience. On March 23rd the UK went into lockdown.  So how do you assess students ability to carry out an assessment when you’re in lockdown??? Remember that point about maybe not embracing technology?

In fact a cursory Google search comes up with a host of issues around why this might be the case. Arguments of turning social work and social care into nothing more than algorithms or that the technological march has all been driven by austerity and the need to save money. All of which could and probably is true. However in June 2019 the Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) Ruth Allen said that if social work did not embrace technology it risked being left behind. By May 2020 there was space in our vocabulary for “is my mic working?” and “I can’t get my camera to work”. Zoom became something other than an ice lolly (admittedly I’m not sure that means anything to people born after 1980) and Tteams more than well just being about teams. Suddenly a nation of social workers got used to wearing X-Box headsets and looking like they were guiding down planes.

In April we were still at that point where when someone’s face popped up in an online team meeting you’d shout “ooh hello”. The novelty was almost palpable. By May there was a Social Work England guide to ethics, risk assessments and virtual meetings. Maybe getting students to do the assessments online wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world? Even so there was still King Ludd within me questioning – you can’t see what’s going on 6 inches to the left of them? How do you know if a student is giving eye contact? Is this really been driven by the drive to get students through for next year and some neoliberal students as consumer’s ideology?

Truth is maybe that part of it was. But then there is always degrees of everything. But then what are the realities of practice? What is it really like out there to practice at the moment and how do we prepare students for it. Well maybe assessing them online isn’t just a pragmatic response (it is) but it also prepares them in a way that using a lab can’t? What’s more we found that the students just weren’t phased by fazed by any of this. In fact not one student contacted us to complain about the change.

Then something amazing happened. It’s June 29th 2020. We have completed one week of skills assessments. In fact as I write the next one is at 1pm. I have to confess this is very unscientific, but all of the students have been on time (it doesn’t always happen in person) and have seemed much less nervous.  The feedback from the experts by experience is much more positive. Not just that but the students have had an experience of using systems and technology that will really support them in practice. I can’t say what the students themselves thought. The assessments have finished yet but the next part of the story will feature that part.

What I can say is what I’ve learnt. We talk about students not reading books. But then if you’re working with a 13 year old child perhaps knowing how snap chat works is just as important as your understanding of the PCS model. How many social work lecturers know how to use Tick Tock (terrible stereotyping I know – but I don’t)? Perhaps what we construe as being valuable knowledge isn’t always right? Maybe the students were much more comfortable working in this way?

Whatever technology we use, essential social work skills remain the same.  Showing empathy, developing a rapport and any other number of skills will continue to be at the core of social work. The vehicle or format that we use them in might change. What matters is that social work keeps its core values and core skills at its heart. Maybe we do also need to embrace the new. It doesn’t have to be a matter of one or the other, technology is an asset to social work. How would we have managed the current situation 20 or 30 years ago?

Whichever way the Covid-19 crisis plays out the world will be different. It’s likely that we are all going to have to keep together whilst continuing to be apart for some time yet. There will always be times when social workers need to be there in person. There are going to be times when we can’t.  So there isn’t an end to this never ending story (another old one). In a world where KSI (???????) has 37m views while only 4m people watch Coronation Street you can be assured change is constant. What I’ve learnt is that sometimes we have to embrace that change in order to move on.

Simon Hall