Social Work Grand Challenge

head with data overlaidLearning to harness technology for social good

Melanie Sage is part of a suicide special interest group that meets on Twitter, where she said “the medium helps get us out of our silos and see problems from multiple perspectives.”

In 2014, Stephanie Berzin was given a Teaching with New Media Award by Boston College for outstanding uses of technology in teaching for using the Canvas learning management program.

She said she “used it with expanded functionality including photos, videos, discussions and online activities,” and it made better use of time between classes. Jonathan B. Singer started the Social Work Podcast in 2007. It won the first NASW Media Award for best website in 2012. Loyola University, where he teaches, says his episodes have been downloaded more than 2 million times. Claudia J. Coulton is working on big data and its use for tackling the problems of health, poverty and development in urban areas to help low-income children and families.

As four of the co-leaders on the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenge to “Harness Technology for Social Good,” Sage, Berzin, Singer and Coulton are viewing the importance and the benefits of technology not only to meet their challenge, but also as essential in achieving success in the other 11 grand challenges and the future of the social work profession.

Technology and Social Work

“Harnessing technology is incredibly important for the field of social work,” said Berzin, BA, MSW, Ph.D., and associate professor at Boston College’s School of Social Work, where she also is assistant dean of the doctoral program and co-director of the Center for Social Innovation at the graduate school.

“We have reached a point where the majority of the world is connected through technology,” she said. “This presents opportunities to reach new populations, develop distinct interventions and access people in new ways. This challenge not only is compelling in terms of magnitude, but it also represents the possibility for radically different solutions to social problems. Technology-based solutions have the potential to change who we serve and how we serve.”

Technology already is rapidly changing everything about the way people live, said Sage, BSSW, MSW, Ph.D. and assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Most people already use technology, and many use wearable devices that track their vital signs or count the number of steps they take, she said. “We need to be involved for the public good,” Sage said.

The social work field has reacted to technology rather than understanding it or developing it, said Singer, BA, LCSW, MSSW, Ph.D. and associate professor at Loyola University in Chicago. “We tend to consume rather than create,” he said. “We need to be creating content, creating apps, creating uses of technology to enhance practice and improve quality of life for people who receive social (work) services.”

Singer, a NASW Illinois member, has been using technology in social work since 1994. He developed the first electronic medical record for what is now Austin-Travis County Integral Care in Texas; he designed and developed the first websites for several social service organizations in Austin; and he started his podcast in 2007. In 2013 he founded the Google Plus community “Social Work and Technology.”

“I have no visions of what the future looks like and then go out and create it,” Singer said. “If anything, I’m able to see where there are problems to be solved. Part of the grand challenge for us is having an incentive to think like this and having professional incentives to go there. This tool should be in our wheelhouse if we want to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

If the profession doesn’t ramp up technology use, it could fall behind, said Coulton, BA, MSW, Ph.D., distinguished university professor and the Lillian F. Harris Professor of Urban Social Research at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

She uses big data at the university’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, where she is founder and co-director.

“Big data allows us to use and improve our social programs,” Coulton said. “Oftentimes we work in a silo. We have records we use to track what’s going on with a client and comply with administrative requirements in a program. But if we mine and link data across systems, we can uncover better ways of serving the population.”

Technology’s Broad Reach

“The tech grand challenge is a little different from the other grand challenges, where they’re mostly trying to resolve a problem,” Sage said. “In this, we’re trying to harness technology. We know it’s moving faster than we are, and it’s a challenge we need to grapple with.”

All the challenges could potentially include technology, Singer said. “Four of the 11 others include technology in part of their challenge briefs,” he said. “Our challenge could be beneficial to all the others. It can be a clearing house, or a consulting group, for people working on the other grand challenges.”

Paradigm for Change

The group’s Policy Brief No. 8 from September 2016 outlines three areas to tackle:

  • Expand internet connectivity for underserved households;
  • unlock government data to drive solutions to social problems; and
  • open the possibility of social work practice across state lines.

Internet connectivity is a social justice issue because vulnerable populations deserve access to the benefits of the Internet, Berzin said. Sage said when people don’t have access and the knowledge to use it, it creates further divides.

“There’s a disparity in the way technology works in rural and tribal communities,” she said. “If you think about tribal communities, they’re separate. It’s their own nation.”

“There are differences in access to technology like the Internet and phones. There’s a difference in access to data availability and the abilities of expertise in using data. It all leads to creating further divides when people don’t have access and knowledge.” Coulton said the Federal Communications Commission is wrestling with producing more access to lower-income communities right now. “I think there will be more to come on this issue,” she said.

Unlocking government data is about harnessing the tremendous data sources that are available and being able to use that data for good, like helping solve social problems, Berzin said.

Sage said the emergence of big data availability is vital.

“There are so many opportunities for huge data sets to inform us of what really works for social problems, she said.

Sage said access to this data could help track issues like compliance with mandates from the federal government. She cited one social issue — compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was instituted in 1978.

“We’ve never had ways to see how that support system works,” she said. “We haven’t seen the decreases we’d expect. But we haven’t seen data points required by the federal government.”

Coulton said “Big data gives us the ability to see systemic problems, to understand those problems, to push toward the root causes and to guide action further back in the causal chain so we can be preventive.”

For example, she said, in dealing with her concern about children from low-income families who fall behind their middle-class counterparts by kindergarten, using big data can help provide “greater understanding of why those children have been falling behind.”

It would allow researchers to study all the children in a region; track all the homes they have lived in; spot run-down housing, foreclosures and evictions; and see areas of lead poisoning and unhealthy housing conditions.

“If you are able to uncover geographic locations where these problems are happening, you are able to target these areas, address the underlying causes and address the problems before children enter kindergarten,” Coulton said. Social workers must ensure that such data is used for good, Sage said.

“We have to have all the right pieces in place to protect people,” she said, “so we need social workers at the table in these discussions.”

State licensing of social work is a barrier to allowing social workers to practice across state lines, but opening practice across state lines creates the potential for online practice and specialists to reach populations that might otherwise not have access, Berzin said.

Sage said she heard from a social worker in a rural state who has an online video-based counseling group for transgender women who live in rural areas. Some of the women live in surrounding states. “She couldn’t do it with her social work hat,” Sage said.

“We would prefer to do things like this with the protections of the field. Interstate access and delivery of services is a social justice problem. We need to be able to deliver solutions to people who need our social support.” Singer said this is an issue social workers have been talking about for a long time.

“Now technology makes possible what was impossible 20 years ago,” he said.

“I think all of these policies are important to move on because of all the political chaos and instability.”

“Being able to provide services across state lines is a political necessity. There’s an ethical and political need to move forward with this thing because of the political situation.”

Benefits Abound

The increased use of technology brings benefits for social workers, their patients and society.

“Children are now native technology users,” Berzin said. “They are learning technology at a young age and using it for many parts of their lives, from education to socialization.”

“By integrating technology with social work practice, we have the opportunity to access youth and communicate with them in a way that feels comfortable. We are meeting them where they are.”

Coulton said technology can increase the capacity for social workers to address problems in various populations, like the use of social media for more real-time contact with clients and tele-social work for distance treatment for people with mental health or behavioral problems who can’t reach clinics. But other things are possible thanks to technology, she said. Like robotic applications for people who need varied assistance with tasks that help them function independently.

“There’s a whole range of technology that’s been or is being developed that needs to be incorporated in social work practice,” Coulton said.

Singer said social workers need to think beyond what they already know, including current uses of technology tools. “Think outside the box,” he said.

Change is Coming

Some changes will be called for from social workers, professors and students.

“This is about retooling and changing how we think about technology for social work,” Berzin said.

“We can no longer view technology as an add on. We must begin to see it as an imperative for practice.”

Many social work professors were not trained to incorporate technology, and that can mean additional training, she said.

“For practitioners in the field, this requires continuing education about specific technology integration and about our standards for practice,” Berzin said.

“For students, the training may take different forms, as many of them come with experience using technology.” But students still need training on how to use technology in professional practice, she said. And technology needs to be integrated throughout the curriculum.

Sage said professors used to deliver a lot of facts to their students, but those facts are now available online.

“Students have little interest in having facts regurgitated,” she said. “They want to know how to practice, how to do things. They can access facts on their own. Now, let’s talk about what to do with them.”

“Younger students think they’re tech-savvy, but that’s often a false assumption.

They’re not viewing it through a social worker lens.”

Singer agrees, saying students need to know things like whether an app is safe and if there’s a potential for harm or abuse.

“They need to know about private data,” he said.

“There are some companies that collect data and sell it to advertisers. We have to train students to assess things like that.”

Improved Connections

Technology can potentially transform the profession’s work and relationships between clinicians and clients, Berzin said.

“It allows for real-time assessment, intervention and feedback,” she said. “Additionally, clients may begin to get support or information from online sources, reshaping practitioner roles as aggregating and legitimizing information.”

Also, technology might give practitioners access to support for different types of interventions or allow them to work with clients across larger geographical boundaries, Berzin said.

Singer believes technology holds promise for allowing more productive time with clients.

One of the things clinicians do currently is spend a lot of time gathering information from clients.

“If we didn’t have to do that, we could spend more time WITH our clients,” he emphasized.

“I have expertise with kids who want to kill themselves. If I had data from a tracker, I would know if someone had gotten five hours of sleep in the last three days and I could call and say ‘What’s going on?’ as opposed to saying ‘You look exhausted. Are you getting enough sleep?’ You can do this with technology because you’ve got the data.”

Singer foresees more use of text-based and online services, too.

“It’s not less genuine or less real,” he said. “That’s a myth.” Sage said social workers should not fear technology use.

“When we are afraid of technology and push it away, it has a bigger impact,” she said. “If we get a clearer vision of how to use technology as a clinical tool, we’ll get better at what we’re doing.”

“If we shut out technical advances, people who aren’t social workers perhaps will fill that void. I would rather talk about what the effective technologies are so we could use them to create positive interventions and not shut ourselves out.”

Technology is not going away, and social workers need to embrace it, Sage said.

“It’s in every piece we do,” she said. “We need to have a positive buy-in. We can’t reject it. We can’t push technology away in our practice.”

Singer agrees, and he sees a big benefit for patients.

“I really believe technology has created the opportunity to give voice to and create a platform for those who have not had a voice or a platform,” he said. “I think one of the ways social workers can think about technology is advocating for people to speak about their experiences when they want to, not when social workers ask them to.”

New Technology Standards Available

The new Technology Standards in Social Work Practice (PDF) are now available for use by the social work community.

They were developed by four organizations — the National Association of Social Workers, Association of Social Work Boards, Council on Social Work Education, and the Clinical Social Work Association.

With representatives from each association, the Task Force for Technology Standards in Social Work Practice was formed and conducted an extensive literature review in technology, reviewed technology standards developed by multiple professions, and social work statutes and licensing regulations in various jurisdictions.

Multiple drafts of the standards were prepared and discussed over a course of two years with the primary goal of developing uniform, comprehensive technology standards across the four major social work organizations.

During the summer of 2016, there was a 30-day public comment period and a large volume of comments were received. As a result, a sub-task force advisory group was established to review the draft standards and provide comments.

The standards were approved by the board of directors of the four major organizations. There are a total of 55 standards integrated into four sections of the technology standards which include:

  • Provision of Information to the Public
  • Designing and Delivering of Services
  • Gathering, Managing, and Storing Information
  • Social Work Education and Supervision

Also included are a glossary of technology terms and a list of resources. The standards are available for review.


NASW Code of Ethics

The NASW Delegate Assembly approved major changes to the NASW Code of Ethics on Aug. 4, in regard to technology.