The role of social media in a social worker’s continuing professional development

I love Twitter. I’ve only been on it a matter of months, but now I wonder how I can live without it.

The banter, puns and wordplay often make me hoot with laughter. The multitude of links to relevant online content keeps me up to date with what’s going on. The ease with which I’m able to communicate with others who share my interests still astounds me. The Twitter debates which this post is contributing to are fast, furious and enormous fun. It is almost impossible to get bored with it and it constantly throws up its own surprises – I’ve just discovered that Community Care have placed me on a list of “100 social care tweeps you need to follow”. Very flattering, but wholly undeserved.

I use Twitter when I am writing to bounce ideas off people or to normalise thoughts before committing them to the text I am preparing. I use it to stimulate debate about interesting papers I come across or to disseminate research that social work practitioners or students may find interesting or useful. I use it to tell people about things I do (like this blog!) or papers I have published. I also use it as a distraction while I am thinking about how to phrase something or how best to construct an argument.

However, the problem with Twitter is that between your tweets and retweets you may not actually get much work done. You may find yourself tweeting to comrades around the world but forget to make your partner a cup of tea (if doing it of an evening like I frequently do). Finding a happy medium between engaging with tweeps who you will never meet and spending time with the real people who share your life is crucial to getting the most out of social media.

Similarly, blogging can be a distraction from writing papers. I find it much easier to write a blog post than an academic paper. As I’m inclined to get the easier things out the way first, I can find myself blogging when I should be constructing a reasoned argument in the next paper on my ‘to-do’ list. (As I’m doing now, in fact!). However, I find that it helps me to write. It forces me to think in sentences and paragraphs, to craft out an argument and to overcome writer’s block.

Engaging in social media over the last six months or so has helped me both as a social worker and as an academic. It has put me in touch with some wonderful, passionate people whose defence of social work values, ethos and professionalism is inspiring. It has sharpened up my debating skills and kept me up to date about current issues in social work. Above all it helps me to engage with practitioners and keep my teaching and research relevant. Social work academics are frequently criticised for being remote, disengaged and ignorant about contemporary practice issues. While it provides a hackneyed view of social work practice at times, social media opens it up to scrutiny and provides the opportunity for everyone to understand a little more about what social workers do.

As a leader of an advanced level post-qualifying social work programme, I recommend social media to my students. Never wanting to ask students to do something that I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself, here is my critical appraisal of the benefits and pitfalls of social media for a social worker’s continuing professional development.

Benefits

  • It can provide a platform for sharing good practice and innovations. Practitioners can learn about contemporary social work anywhere in the world via the web and be inspired to integrate the best of it into their practice.
  • Practitioners undertaking post-qualifying training can discuss and share new learning via online platforms. Discussion can help to consolidate and extend learning in a way in which classroom encounters sometimes cannot.
  • Social media can be an effective way for practitioners to share relevant papers, policy documents or briefings as they complete assignments for formal training or to support their continuing professional development.
  • Practitioners can pose quick questions and receive quick responses on Twitter. But they might not be what they want to hear or even the right answer (if there is one)!
  • Social media can be an efficient way to gather data from practitioners around the country or the world for research projects (I’ll be supporting a couple of my students to do just this soon!).
  • Social media platforms can support online communities of interest which allow practitioners to bond with others within their specialism in a way which is not possible in their workplace.
  • Online debate can promote the development of critical thinking, a key component of more advanced post-qualifying learning.

Pitfalls

  • Despite its name, social media is not for everyone. Only a small minority of social workers engage with it who are possibly unrepresentative of all practitioners.
  • There is a lot of rubbish out there and it is up to each practitioner to appraise everything they read. Social media is not peer reviewed and people can say what they like, however misleading and inaccurate it may be.
  • Many employers do not encourage it and many practitioners fear for their well-being or jobs if their real identities are revealed. Anonymity is one solution, but this can bring its own problems.
  • People may post content to bolster their online identity, which may diminish authenticity, accuracy and learning opportunities.
  • Social media is blossoming and taking over our lives. It can eat into work time and distract us from our core activities.
  • It can be difficult to implement anything discussed or learnt online into practice. In an increasingly managerial and bureaucratic environment, social workers may struggle to innovate or introduce new ideas into their practice.

I find social media both a distraction and a critical friend. It helps me to refine arguments, but takes me away from other core activities. Like most things in life it is not overwhelmingly good or bad, but it can be a useful tool to support a practitioner’s continuing professional development if used wisely. But then, by virtue of the fact that you are reading this, I am probably preaching to the converted so I don’t think that I need to say anything else!

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Connecting People study update

This week the Connecting People study gained a new lease of life. A new researcher, Hannah Reidy, has joined the study to replace David Ansari who left to take up a PhD scholarship in Chicago in September.

Hannah joins us from Wandsworth Mind. She brings social care and research expertise, and a fresh perspective, to the study. I very much look forward to working with her over the next year.

We are entering the final phase of the ethnography in which we will be returning to each of the participating agencies in turn to refine our intervention model. Starting on Monday at BlueSCI, we will be continuing our observations of social care practice in its context to understand how people are supported to connect with others. We aim to consult on our intervention model to obtain feedback from workers and the people they work with before Christmas.

We are also starting to articulate what is required in order to achieve the intervention model. This will take the form of a manual. We envisage this to be flexible and not prescriptive, allowing for intuition and creativity whilst maintaining some parameters for the intervention. This will be completed by April 2012 when we will use the Delphi consultation method to obtain the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and refine it further. After that … well, I have to wait until contracts are signed before I can reveal what else 2012 brings for the Connecting People study.

In the meantime we have a new look blog (follow this to obtain regular updates about the study) and a new facebook page (please ‘like’ us!) to engage more people in the study.

Please do not hesitate to comment here, on the study blog or via email to me if you would like to share your thoughts about the study.

User-led recovery (as it should be!)

Shared experience supports recovery. That’s the thinking behind a recovery community. And there’s evidence that it works.

Starting in the US, recovery communities can now be found in the UK and are growing as an alternative to traditional services for people recovering from substance misuse or mental health problems.

This week in Kingston-upon-Thames in south west London, the Recovery Initiative Social Enterprise (RISE) is being launched. It aims to develop a recovery community consisting of people recovering from substance misuse issues. As a user-led enterprise, RISE will actively encourage its participants in their recovery journey. It will provide problem solving opportunities, learning and skills development and peer support for those currently in their recovery journey. The project is being both developed and delivered by service users in recovery, targeting Kingston’s c.200 substance users accessing existing services. It hopes to expand to other vulnerable groups such as people with mental health problems following an initial pilot.

I am very pleased to support RISE, as it is an initiative led and inspired by people who have overcome substance misuse problems and it embodies social capital in action. The aim of RISE is to bring together people who are in the process of recovery to support one another and generate social capital. Connections made in the course of engaging with RISE will potentially provide members with access to shared resources previously unavailable to them.

I have been asked to evaluate the pilot of RISE to assess outcomes for its members. We will collect data from the first 40 members of Kingston RISE and evaluate whether or not it improves their well being and access to social capital over three months. We will also evaluate members’ perceptions of the benefits of RISE for them.

I was invited to work with RISE by Mario, its director. I met Mario this summer during a focus group I was facilitating as part of the Connecting People study. When we met, we both recognised each other but at first struggled to work out where from. I soon realised that I had worked with Mario and his family when I was a practitioner about ten years ago. When we got talking, I was pleased that we were able to relate well to one another and appreciate our shared passion for the development of social capital.

I feel quite honoured to be in a position to work with Mario again, but this time in a very different capacity. The power differential has completely shifted from a practitioner-service user relationship to a collaborative one. We have jointly agreed the objectives of the evaluation and are sharing responsibility for it. The collaboration is a very different kind of relationship to the one we had when I was a practitioner, but, on reflection, it shouldn’t be. However, the pressures of local authority social work often make the development of meaningful collaborations quite tricky.

I have written previously about user involvement in social work education, but this is a completely different experience. RISE is initiated, led and promoted by service users. As a fully user-controlled service, it has achieved the highest rung of Arnstein’s ladder of involvement. Arguably, this is never achievable in social work education as, by definition, it is under professional control. 

I wish Mario and Michele (the co-director of RISE) all the best as they embark on this exciting adventure and I look forward to evaluating the outcomes for the community they develop.