Amanda Taylor, Social Work Academic at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), is a technology engaged social work academic with a keen interest in embedding new technologies into teaching and learning practices with the aim of influencing the development and use of technologies within the social work practice space. Amanda is known across social work education and practice as an expert in this area. She has been commissioned to deliver digital literacy training to many local authorities, to assist them to map their digital journey for practice effectiveness in line with the digital shift. Although based in social work, Amanda has begun to work across education as a whole in terms of shaping teaching and learning methods that are fit for the 21st century, fit for the digital world.
In this interview, we talk to Amanda about her career pathway, the use of technology in social work and social care and the future of digital skills in the profession, the ethical tensions cause by new and emerging technologies and the teaching of digital skills and much more.
How have you developed the deep understanding that you have about the way technology and social care are intrinsically linked?
Before moving into social work education, I was a social work practitioner in Northern Ireland, during which time I had a purely functional relationship with technologies. But, as new and interesting tech began to emerge, something that coincided with a move ten years ago from Ireland to England, I started to see tech differently. I needed to use the latest tools to keep in touch with people back home and it was this that prompted me to start exploring how new technologies could help me deliver 21st century social work education in new and interesting ways.
I began to consider the possibilities of available technologies and examine how I might exploit them to meet the needs of student social workers, in an attempt to support their learning, and in preparation for entering practice in a technology infused world. As issues of a technological nature started to arise across the populace, so too did my commitment to ensuring student social workers were exposed to and equipped for issues of the digital age.
As part of the move towards marrying the digital to the social for social workers I started to question how new technologies could serve to connect students, practitioners and academics in a way that could strengthen the profession in a global sense. The Twitter feed @SWVirtualPal is an example of this work.
Much further into the development of my thinking I wrote a book about digital pedagogy called The Learning Wheel – click here for more details. Although the book centres around a particular model of pedagogy the content offers a wider contribution to an embryonic body of knowledge aimed at preparing educators to teach students in formal and post compulsory education settings in a manner that addresses digital capabilities for life and work in a digital world.
This is just a flavour of my career to date and my work, much more about it and me can be found on my Linkedin.
How is technology impacting on the need for and delivery of social care?
When we talk about social work and social care, we must remember that the world in which users of services live, to a larger extent, shapes their needs. Therefore, as technology develops, so too must the skills of social work and social care professionals, if we are to recognise and meet these needs in an ethical and authentic manner. Central to this are service providers who are insightful and curious about new technologies; how they have, are and will impact upon and influence people in the world. Changes to the social milieu are not new, but what is new is the way in which social issues are presenting… it is this that we in social work and social care are beginning to tune into.
Technology is often considered in binary terms. On the one hand there’s the potential of technology, which we need to exploit and make work for us. On the other, there are the perils and dangers of technology that we must be aware of and guard against. The impacts of technological advancements are more disturbing than exciting in many respects. Data mining, predictive modelling, digital exclusion etc are all recent examples of some of the issues that we as social care professionals need to pay much closer attention to. We need to think about the complexities and potential perils of technology, before rushing ahead to exploit the benefits. That, in my mind, starts in education but is the responsibility of all stakeholders involved in the delivery of care and protection services.
Can you provide more specific examples of how this impacts on local authorities?
Local authorities, pretty much like the rest of the world, are working hard at playing catch up regarding the skilled and ethical use of new technologies in practice. Digital technologies can drive efficiency, but appropriate skills, methods and policies must be in place to ensure that ethics and effectiveness predominate over-efficiencies in this respect.
Ethics is thankfully and rightly so, a hot topic in social work at the moment, as is the idea of digital native or digital immigrant, terms that in no way reflect the nuances or reality regarding the digital capabilities and digital skills required for practice in current times. The digital development of both agencies and practitioners is much more complex and multi-layered and should not be reduced to thinking that views personal usage as wholly transferable into the professional sphere – because put simply – it is not. Left unattended, thinking of this kind can exacerbate the potential for a blurring of boundaries, and ethical issues that would be detrimental to social work.
My current research project considers the contribution of social work education to the digital professionalism of students for practice in the digital world. It is my hope that this work will add to the work that has already been done in this area.
What do you think the major problem is regarding the teaching of digital skills and what can be done to improve the situation?
One of the major issues, as I see it, is the lack of digital development opportunities available to students in formal and compulsory education. The Secondary tier of formal education tends to be more risk averse when it comes to new technologies, which has the result of forcing young people to navigate through learning about digitalisation themselves. Our preparedness as educators also needs to be addressed, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. We must adapt to the new world we’re already living in, and teach to the actuality of the lived experience, otherwise we are doing a disservice to the pupils and students who sit before us.
Education environments are improving but again there is much work to be done so that when students enter into higher education they feel prepared to engage with the systems in place. Subject areas also need to ensure that they include reference to the digital given how this phenomenon has and is shaping all areas of our world. I have written a paper on this topic relating to social work.
What do you do with people already in the workplace?
I deliver a package of training designed to enable practitioners already qualified in the field to reflect upon and examine their digital capabilities and their presence online. To think about digital knowledge gaps. I offer content pertaining to digital as a layer of professionalism more broadly and work with colleagues to fill identified gaps. I provide information and research relating to social work – issues regarding practice and the technological shift.
The local authorities that I’ve been working with are very open about the need for training and education, although it does vary from authority to authority and is dependent on where they’re up to in their digital journey. An interesting blog showcasing the training delivery at East Sussex can be found here.
When I deliver training I generally exploit technologies before I meet agencies and practitioners through the use of an online space aimed at starting communications well in advance of the event. This helps me to tailor the training to the needs of the agency and its practitioners. Uncovering the digital skills gaps, which undoubtedly exists with employees, whether they’ve been in the workplace for a long time or they’re new to the profession, can be disconcerting and liberating in equal measures. It is my job to make sure that the transition from older less effective ways of working to new and more progressive ways of working is normalised, paced and appropriate to practitioner and service needs. We are all learning – so in my opinion learning spaces need to be safe to be effective – geared to what practitioners need.
What support is needed, in an ideal world, from central government to help the public sector successfully embrace technology in social care?
There has been some recognition of the skills and knowledge gaps that exist across the populace but as yet addressing this need has not yet been fully realised. Digital by default means that all people, professional or not, need to be digitally equipped, with the infrastructure in place that allows access to all. The facility for people to develop digital literacy to the degree necessary to interact with new systems as they emerge is a must. That could begin with having a consistent digital spine running through the curriculum at all ages and life stages, with those without access to education borne in mind.
Is the system already changing thanks to technology?
I think it is – and there are signs that it is accelerating – but because of austerity measures digital development for all hasn’t seen the seismic shift it could have. The shifts that are occurring need to continue and they need to be underpinned by a fit for purpose education system, an educational system of this time. The speed of technological change means that we’ll always be on the back foot, but if changes are made to education across the board then baseline digital literacy can be addressed. It is then and only then will we truly benefit and manage technological developments of this time and in the times that are to come.