Examining the Contribution of Social Work Education to the Digital Professionalism of Students for Practice in the Connected Age

Taylor, Amanda M l (2019) Examining the Contribution of Social Work Education to the Digital Professionalism of Students for Practice in the Connected Age. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Social work education is the gateway through which the protected title of social worker is secured. Given the professional status of social work there is an expectation that on qualification, students of social work will be practice prepared. This phenomenographic study considers preparedness in the connected age, through examining the contribution of social work education to the digital development of students, from the student point of view. Digital development, as related to professionalism, is set within the context of the digital shift, given the impact of digitalisation on people, on societies and on the social world.

The professional requirements for social work education and practice include reference to technologies and technological skills. However, the world, in a technological sense has, and continues to move on. Thus, this study examines variation in students’ experiences of digital development, with the view to informing curriculum design, content and delivery, in future terms. To begin to address the lack of clarity in social work about what professionalism in the digital age might realistically include, the terms ‘digital’ and ‘professional’ are conflated throughout this work to emphasise the relational nature of the two.

Data generation involved semi-structured interviews, with 11 social work students at a single university in England, at the point of qualification; a time when students will have had the opportunity to engage with curriculum content in its fullest. Interview material was analysed using an iterative method that is in keeping with the phenomenographic approach. The findings evidence four qualitatively different conceptions of what digital development involved for this student group. Even though digital development was seen to occur, student descriptions show this development to have been largely limited and partly unrealised, due to the incidental nature of digital learning experienced throughout the duration of the course.

If social work education in England is to prepare students adequately for the realities of 21st century practice, due consideration needs to be given to digitalisation, to the emerging nature of 21st century social need, and to how students are being equipped to respond to this. An exploration of how digitisation is explicitly reflected within curriculum design, content and delivery should form part of this, because as the findings of this study suggest, in situations where this has not occurred, it is long overdue.

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