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UCC Responds: The Online Social Work Practice (OSWP) Initiative

12 Aug 2021

Providing social work services during COVID19 is a major challenge. For example, how to transition to remote service provision to children and families at risk, safeguarding older adults, services to homeless families, and child to parent domestic violence group-work. This article looks at the experience of the Online Social Work Practice initiative that was developed in response to the pandemic, working together with service providers and practitioners. 

Prior to March 2020, when COVID19 significantly affected Irish society, lecturers on the UCC Masters of Social Work (MSW) and the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programmes, Dr Fiachra Ó Suilleabháin and Dr Kenneth Burns identified the need for a  more seamless and GDPR  compliant  form of communication for their teaching team  and  students.  They began exploring MS Teams, a UCC-approved communication platform, to hold meetings, share files, instant message etc.

When COVID19 restrictions hit, the Social Work teaching team had  graduated through the learning curve of using online platforms and had built up their knowledge of  both the practical, technical application of Teams but importantly the sensitivities of carrying out  social  work-related  activities  in an online setting. 

Online Social Work Practice graphic

Kenneth and Fiachra were receiving calls from past students, key service  providers and practitioners  enquiring  about  supports  and reaching out to see how other people were navigating the challenges.  They held over 40  individual consultations  providing   advice and guidance rather than instruction and  dictation  and thereby  helping practitioners to  make  the  seemingly impossible  (i.e.  online engagement with service-users) possible.    The demand  for informal  consultations  grew  and they  realised  they  could  consolidate  their efforts  to play a stronger role in supporting local, regional, and national  services.  

In response, the UCC Online Social Work Practice initiative (OSWP) was  launched to rapidly co-create solutions  with frontline staff, so that they could effectively respond to critical needs.  In addition to the initial consultation phase, the OSWP features two main pillars: 

  • Webinars  
  • Tools  


As a result of their numerous and widespread consultations, the teaching team knew what type of support practitioners and service providers required. They mapped out a series of 4 webinars to cover the emerging needs of practitioners. The webinars were widely attended across Ireland, with approximately 800 people registering for each session.  Each webinar drew on the expert knowledge of both the Social Work lecturers and the community-based services where the speakers shared insights e.g.  how to make a bespoke Padlet for service users and; the experience of conducting online parenting programmes and direct online interventions with children and adults.   

OSWP Webinar Flyer with illustration

There were contributions showcasing online practice initiatives across Ireland from organisations such as EPIC (Empowering People in Care), Gay Project, Irish Association of Care Workers (IASW), Care Alliance Ireland, ISPCC, Barnardos, Cope Foundation, Good Shepherd ServicesAdult Mental Health Services (HSE), TUSLA and many others. The webinars also featured current and former students.  The lecturers reached out to UCC colleagues in other departments who had relevant expertise to share with attendees. For example, they collaborated with lecturer Dr Simon Woodworth (Cork University Business School) who provided technical expertise  on  the safety and efficacy of online platforms  and how to strive towards best practice online. The focus and sequencing of these free webinars, all of which were recorded and are  publicly available online, provided invaluable  advice to resource  strapped community-based  organisations and helped to build solidarity at a stressful time.    


Alongside the webinars, the teaching team (in collaboration with colleagues based in UCC, other HEIs and in practice) compiled a range of tools and resources in a readily digestible format to support the transition to e-social practice. The focus of these tools ranged from ‘Running an Effective Online Meeting Using MS Teams’ to ‘Remote Supervision in Social Work’.

The learnings and outputs of the OSWP initiative became an integral part of the lecturers teaching approaches on the Social Work  programmes as Fiachra, Kenneth  and colleagues were able to provide  cutting edge, evidence-based  knowledge and guidance to their students. The MSW and BSW students  were  recipients of the webinar  content and supporting resources with the OSWP forming  a critical  part of their professional development in advance of  their placements and future work in a digital practice context.       

The OSWP is one strong example of how University College Cork students, employees and services responded to community needs during the global COVID19 pandemic (more examples here) and illustrates how rich, reciprocal relationships with community organisations can provide a fertile learning opportunity for all stakeholders.  

For more on this story contact:

This Practice Insight is published by @UCC_CIRTL and @UCC_Civic as part of the CE Toolkit for embedding civic and community engagement in the curriculum. Discover more about How to Learn with Communities. 

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