Blog #1 Social Workers and Technology or Technology for Social Workers?

ANZASW CPD CoordinatorI was listening to a pod cast (this is an amazing website – heaps of great podcasts to listen to) the other day about social work, robots and technology and was very interested in the presenter’s comments. He stated that when the telephone was first invented, social workers were quick to start using it, but now social workers often appear reluctant to use technology. This has also been my observation. I am concerned that social workers are being left behind in the development and the use of various technologies that could enhance our work. I hear social workers saying that social work is about building relationships – but actually it is more than that. It is about making sure that every citizen has the tools, capability and connections to build relationships – and if we think about it like that, maybe technology has more to offer?

There’s a New Zealand firm who are doing internationally recognised work in the development of AI (Artificial Intelligence). AI is going to happen. It will happen even if we dig our toes in, bury our heads in the sand and keep saying social work is all about relationships. If we don’t get in at the beginning, the first AI to be used in the social service sector will be based on the thoughts and thinking of the minds that the developers have access to – engineers, software developers, information systems developers, and then possibly psychologists – because that’s who most people think of when they start thinking about how people think. It would be great if those first AIs have some social work input – so not only do they think like people, but they also relate like people and can interact more realistically. If the early AIs used in public consumption are effective, and informed by social work, we will see AIs developing that are more connected to all the issues that face social workers.

In this podcast Meredith Whittaker and Kate Crawford give more reasons why we need to be involved. It’s an hour long, but there’s also a transcript.

I have watched a number of videos about the use of AI in counselling and social interactions. This video is quite old now (by AI standards) and I’d be keen to see what’s happening now.

There’s also quite a bit of research coming out now which indicates that clients actually reveal more if they think they are talking to a non-person: Tess (scroll down to “Computers that care”) and Ellie are both examples. Here is more information about the organisation developing Tess.

For social workers who are supporting people to stay independent for longer, Amazon Alexa can now provide help and advice.

What do you think?

What do you define as “technology”? How do you use it?

What concerns you about technology? Why don’t you use it? What would encourage you to make more use of it?

Why are social workers “late up-takers”?

What technology would you like to see developing? What would you like to develop?

If you think you are an early up-taker, why is that? What attracted you to using technology?

Have a go at it!!

Anne MacAulay

May 2019


  • Julie

    Interesting articles/ research/ interviews to reflect on and consider in relation to practice too:

    Goverment Use of Artificial Intelligence In New Zealand

  • Maya Nair

    Hi Anne,
    It’s a great thought of starting a blog to open up constructive conversations.
    Like any other jobs, we also have to keep us uptodate with Tech matters and being a savvy. We do rely on technology a lot these days in our personal and professional life. I think it’s more kind of ‘going with the flow’.

    But more than any other profession; social workers deals with people with real life issues. Even though we can see the same kind of issues in every matter that we deal with, the approach that will work for each individual and each family won’t be the same. Hence I doubt the capability of Artificial Intelligence- not more than another tool to our kitty.

    • Hi Maya,
      Have you watched the links that are in the blog? There is some information and demonstration of AI there that really changed my thinking about AI and it’s place in social work. The whole idea of AI is that it can learn from itself and its experiences, just like a human can. What I’d like to ensure is that the first AI used in counselling and social work, actually has social work thinking behind it before it is put to use. If we don’t get in now, it may be difficult for us to find our voice as the whole concept and use of AI grows and leaves us behind.

  • Helen Burnip

    Hi – thanks you for your blog Anne and the challenge to look more closely at Artificial Intelligence. As a Social Worker in the older age group, technology has been something that it has been necessary to accept and adapt to albeit at a lower level. For people who are restricted in accessing the community through ill-health or disability, it has opened up a whole new world. I agree with Estelle though that it necessary for people to interact with people. I can see that while used thoughtfully, technology can add huge benefit it can also con vulnerable people into believing in a world that is removed from reality, in many cases exacerbating mental health illness and increasing suicides . My major concern is ethical, where is the privacy and safety in the use of todays AI? We live in a changing world, advances in technology must be used to enhance not destroy the world we live in and the people who inhabit it.

    • Hi Helen,
      I really like the idea that technology could be used as a tool to increase equity – as long as it doesn’t end up creating a bigger gap!!! Access to technology and services will be important for all members of our society.

  • Lynda Bell

    Well I have never subscribed to a Blog before so let’s see what happens. I have always used what was available. I am interested in the use of social media and how it effects clients. Social media was not around when I was employed. It was considered quite radical to text a client. That was six years ago. Now social media is part of daily life and I wonder how this has changed the sw environment. Sorry doesn’t answer your questions
    I can say I started using it because my family did. My husband designed computers in the 60s and my son had one of the first bulletin boards in the 80s and now my other son is a digital marketer.

    • Deb Stanfield is presenting a webinar on Thursday 30th May at 12:30 on social workers and their use of social media. This was the topic of her PhD – som make sure you register for it!!

  • Estelle Dyhrberg

    Unfortunately my experience with technology has been negative due to workplace more than anything. Mobile phones used to bully and interrupt work (told off if not on), I Pads used to have workers working more but sold on working more efficiently. Before these social workers had REAL interaction with people and i have been very distressed watching young social workers with their head in their i pad and typing instead of interacting with clients and listening to them properly especially when clients distressed.. Firms sold this to our work for safety reasons, this was not correct, safety can be built into the work and by workers in a good way without it. For me this covers the first three questions and as an example i worked all over London, Australia and NZ without these things. I was not attracted to it and being forced to use it does not engender good feelings about it.

    As to artificial intelligence, as stated i think that social workers instead of being pumped out of university with on no on the job training and put into very responsible roles alone, there should be much more coaching and learning on the job after which we could think about this. I can see a role for an artificial intelligence doll used as a client for practice for social workers. The basics not right enough for my tastes yet to move onto more complicated aspects. .

    • I think that is a shame that your mobile devices have been used to increase your workload and stress levels rather than decrease them. I have learnt some skills in ignoring!!! When I first started social working, no one had a mobile phone!!!! – now I feel very odd if I go anywhere without it – although, I happily ignore it if it rings and I am busy.
      Interacting with clients is a foundation of social work. But many of our younger clients have a different expectation of what that interaction looks like. I apologised to a young client for having to enter what she was telling me into the device I was using. Her response was along the lines of “If you don’t enter it in there, as we talk, I cannot be sure that you are actually listening to me and recording what I am telling you.” It made me re-look at my own attitudes towards mobile devices and the expectations of younger clients.
      Social workers all have to complete a set number of days of fieldwork placement during their course. Once they have qualified they have to complete 2000 hours of supervised practice before they achieve full registration.

    • Jen

      I agree with Estelle. As a ‘mature’ student nearing the completion of my BSW, I can’t say loudly enough that students need more time in the field over the course of their training. Anne makes a valid point that we have to spend the set number of days on placement but I still feel that there would be value in an ongoing placement – 4 days of study to 1 day of in the field so that we are putting theory into practice sooner, as well as the two 12 week blocks we currently experience.

      • Or what about completing the course of study and then having a couple of years where you are considered a “new practitioner” and gain experience across a range of social work practice places? A bit like young doctors. They graduate medical school and then gain more experience working under experienced doctors, learning about a range of different types of medicine, spending time in a variety of areas. How much would a model like this broaden and expand social work?

  • Perry Peng

    Nobody can stop the development of our society. The Technology is keeping of updating year by year. Now the world has already entered the gate of Artificail Intellignce times. We have to face this. We have accept this. Whatever, we want or like to accpet this. Al must enter into our life in the near future.
    Rearding to soicla work practice, I support this technology can be used in some area, scuh as looking after the people with private needs or the people having serious medical conditions which may affect other people’s health.

  • Francis Pedersen

    What I would like to see given an opportunity is the use of recording technology while out in the field.

    As a statutory Social Worker I feel this type of technology would enhance my mahi as paper work takes up most of my time where I would rather be out in the field doing hands on mahi. We do have high & complex cases that I feel requires more interaction to better support our whanau through their situations rather then worrying about keeping up with notes back at the office. This leaves whanau hanging for too long as we are trying to juggle paperwork & field work as well as all the other cases on our load.

    I do feel I am technology savvy & do depend on it when I am out in the field such as placing phone calls, searching for services, searching for understandings & many more. In addition, when we prepare tamariki for specialists interviews, instead of talking to them we have the option of showing them a vidoe explaining the interview process which for kinisthetic specific tamariki works great. Also, tamariki these days are drawn to technology such as ipads or tablets which supports my mahi in terms of building a relationship with te tamait & making sure he/she understands.