Teaching Social Justice via Distance Education — Technology & Experiential Learning
Motivating students to social justice advocacy can be a formidable task in any educational setting. Two educators skilled in social work technology explore how to effectively take on the challenge in online coursework.
Many social work educators find themselves in a quagmire when trying to design and deliver course work that inspires and transforms students into social justice advocates. What does it take to do this? We will share our use of electronic pedagogy to achieve this outcome in distance education communities. Believe it or not, with the appropriate integration of technology, research and experiential learning and distance education is especially well suited for this type of knowledge development. Online learning provides professional skills that are equipping students to become pioneers and to network with communities globally (Marquart & Ryan, 2019).
In the past social workers were known to serve impoverished communities, providing healing and bringing resources to groups (e.g., families, communities, organizations). This included coordinating community events, serving as mediators, and advocating on behalf of various populations. Currently, social workers have been called to action to use their voices and skills to bridge gaps in communities, for example. In some neighborhoods, social workers help bring together community events such as coffee with police and story time with police that facilitate stronger community relationships. They also can be found working in communities to be sure members are aware and registering for health insurance as well as holding educational forums on issues related to social determinants of health.
Although these events take place in face-to-face settings, social workers who teach with technology have the ability to coordinate Twitter chats with police using questions and answers as a community building tool. As social work faculty members, we acknowledge that “social justice” can be a popular phrase tied to our field, and yet students often share how difficult they find it to actually understand whether what they are doing in their field placements is related to social justice. Often left to policy coursework, students are hungry for more real world experiences—experiences where they can apply the skills and abilities they are being taught in social work courses. From building a social justice toolkit to interacting with agency leaders who are on the front lines of social justice work, students are eager to be the change they want to see in the world. Positioning students to understand what social justice is and developing advocacy skills through experiential course assignments creates the toolkit that allows students to take action on the interrelated principles of social justice.
Why Distance Education?
Educational Policies and Standards
Learning in Online Communities
The How: Building Relationships
Online Social Justice Assignments
In online social welfare policy classes, students are assigned teams and encouraged to experience debates on various topics. During their online debates (via Zoom, Google Hangouts, and YouTube) they engage over relevant facts related to current cases and the impact of technology on the outcomes. In retrospect, assignments and class activities relevant to real world circumstances usually lead students to practice civic engagement and advocacy regardless of what type of social work practice they pursue. Students who are pursuing helping professions are usually in it for the “change factor.” Therefore, creating and administering online social justice assignments are setting students up for success.
Social Justice in the Policies: For this assignment, policy briefs are created by students using Microsoft PowerPoint slides. The purpose of the policy briefs is to provide online communities and elected officials with information pertaining to various social issues. In online spaces, students share their assignments (policy briefs) with stakeholders who will benefit from the statistical data. Also, they are shared on blogs and other social media outlets during social work advocacy day on Capitol Hill and distributed to elected officials/aides via e-mail. Afterwards, students are expected to complete a reflection assignment on the responses received from stakeholders. Those responses have been pleasant and encouraging to students. In some instances, this assignment has transformed into a working relationship with elected officials that created opportunities for internships and/or employment.
Social Justice on Women in the Military: For this assignment, students create an infographic addressing a social issue related to women in the military. The purpose of this assignment is to research a topic of interest and to share specifics online through social media websites. Platforms used to create infographics are Piktochart, PowerPoint, Google Slides, and Canvas. Once they create an infographic, the student whose content has the most shares through social media is acknowledged and celebrated at the end of the semester. Using the infographic as a social justice tool encourages students to identify, research, and inform others about a social issue.
Teaching social justice online is important in the technology-driven world. It is also an ethical and core values requirement in the social work profession. Students exploring topics that are relevant to their communities and the passion expressed in the assignments is why many teachers remain in the classroom. Social justice assignments in online education allow students to experience the ease or discomfort in identifying and exploring necessary resources, much like a client does. This would be a lived experience of advantage vs disadvantage and/or using critical thinking and conflict resolution skills. The use of technology opens the door to micro, mezzo, and macro practice for current and future social work practitioners (Hitchcock, Sage, & Smyth, 2019). It creates the opportunity to serve as advocates through linking clients to services, helping with locating funding and sharing information that may inform policy makers. Social justice in online education generates a digital footprint related to social issues. This has become the norm in today’s society. Digital storytelling has been found to have benefits in social work education, as it allows for multiple ways to present information and brings a specific topic to life when covered in the curriculum (McGovern, 2019).
Several individuals pursue the field of social work to “help others.” Social justice is one of the methods to help when in-depth research of a circumstance takes place. There are several skills that social workers possess; however, the pursuit of social justice calls for ambiguity. The social work profession is grounded in core values (NASW, 2017) and held to standards that make the profession rich and effective in many ways. The core values identify the purpose and tasks of social workers in practice and education. Social work intervention takes place in all populations through evidence-based practices. However, they are somewhat streamlined and recognized as local news. Using online platforms breaks down barriers and eliminates the knowledge of social injustices to the local news; it broadens the reach.
In recent years, social media sites have become the main source for highlighting social issues, also known as injustices. Therefore, social workers have been called to action, in the classroom (online/traditional), in practice, and beyond. This call has been accepted, and social workers across the world are answering in online platforms. With students being introduced to experiential learning through social justice in online education, their awareness is heightened and they become willing to advocate, intervene, and spread awareness in their geographical locations. Teaching social justice in online education bridges the gap between in-person and online classes. It introduces skills online that translate into practice and makes students marketable when entering the field. The social work profession is known for engagement in social action; ensuring that all educational practices are inclusive of the core values is essential and encourages experiential learning.
— Nathalie P. Jones, PhD, MSW, is an associate professor of social work at Tarleton State University.
— Melissa Thompson, LCSW, OSW-C, is a professor at Dominican University’s School of Social Work.
Hitchcock, L. I., Sage, M., & Smyth, N. J. (2019). Teaching social work with digital technology. Alexandria, VA: CSWE Press.
Marquart, M., & Ryan, D. (2019, January 15). Taking online courses — 7 professional benefits for social work students. Social Work Today. Retrieved from https://www.socialworktoday.com/news/enews_0119_1.shtml.
McGovern, J. (2019). Improving undergraduate competence in multicultural gerontology practice with fresh pedagogies: A digital storytelling case example. Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, 40(4), 508-518.
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National Association of Social Workers. (2017). NASW, ABSW, CSWE & CSWA standards for technology in social work practice. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/includes/newIncludes/homepage/PRA-BRO-33617.TechStandards_FINAL_POSTING.pdf.
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Thompson, M., & Jones, N. P. (2019, August 21). Tips for new online social work educators. Retrieved from: https://www.laureliversonhitchcock.org/2019/08/21/tips-for-new-online-social-work-educators/.