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UCC Responds: The Online Social Work Practice (OSWP) Initiative
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.
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:
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.
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 Services, Adult 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.