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Technology Trends: Incorporating Simulation Into the Classroom
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 1 P. 10

Simulation-based technology has already made its presence felt at many social work institutions. For example, interactive online simulation has provided the opportunity for students to practice field training in the classroom. But now, as the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has limited field placement opportunities in many areas, the technology has proven to be more than an added learning opportunity—it’s an invaluable tool.

Melody Brackett, PhD, MSW, an associate professor and director of the social work program at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, says the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered some doors to field placements and service learning opportunities. Although the program has found some new placement opportunities, the pandemic led Brackett to explore online simulation.

At press time, her department was using the Building Family Bonds simulation from Kognito, which provides virtual home visit opportunities utilizing an interactive role-play scenario. Brackett says students have responded positively. “I’m using it as part of my Fundamentals of Interviewing class and it’s providing students with an interactive way to reinforce the skills they’re learning,” she says.

The simulations have provided a unique opportunity to integrate classroom content with practice. “When I talk to the students about the simulation experience, I tell them to envision themselves in the role of an educator, which they learned in the Introduction to Social Work class,” Brackett says. “In the educator role, you give information and teach skills to others. Therefore, they must figure out how to effectively engage the virtual family. They learn higher-level skills by working through these simulations. The simulations also reinforce skills that they have already learned, such as active listening, engagement, observation, problem solving, and reflection.”

Brackett says students become incredibly engaged in the simulations and often express that it was an enjoyable experience. This is the first time the program has infused computer-based interactive simulation in the classroom.

Brackett is pleased to see students utilizing vital skills in a fun way, a development that can facilitate further learning. Ahead of the pandemic, like many classrooms, Brackett’s was already using role play to practice skills. But now she foresees the simulation experience becoming more ingrained in the classroom.

“Even after the pandemic goes away, the simulations will still be very relevant tools in social work education,” she says. “It’s engaging and fun—but most importantly, it helps to prepare students for direct practice beyond role play and case assessments in the lower-level courses. The simulations provide the opportunity for immediate dialogue and feedback. I can stop at any point during the interaction and ask students to provide a rationale for their response, which further promotes critical thinking.”

Gurnek Singh, head of product for health care at Kognito, says that the “power of conversation” is what drives the value of these simulation opportunities. “We believe in the power of conversation to improve social, emotional, and physical health, so we use simulation technology to help people have conversations that can be really difficult,” he explains. “Conversation training has been taught more as an art than a science when you think of health care as a whole. The way that our providers have been taught to communicate has largely been through preceptorships and role play—but there can be a lot of variance in the nature of that instruction. Adapting technology to create these learning experiences helps to standardize things and allows us to build on the research that tells us virtual simulation can be really effective. In the simulation, students have a safe digital experience that starts to build confidence.”

Virtual simulation can also address what is perhaps one of the most difficult topics for social workers to broach with patients: substance use. “Considering that substance use is an epidemic, these conversations are so important,” Singh says, adding that in the social work arena, addressing topics such as social workers’ own mental health is essential.

“Our simulations help with the identification of who is at risk and then starts leading them toward interventions while helping them deal with challenges that may arise,” he says. “We’re thinking not just how these issues affect the general public, but how they affect providers, too. The pandemic has shone a light on the stress that our frontline workers are under and helping them have conversations about their own behavioral health is important. They should not have to struggle in silence.”

Effective Implementation
In terms of the logistics of implementing simulations into the curriculum, Brackett says it is important students view it as a regular part of instruction—not busy work after class. For that reason, she uses class time to work through simulations in addition to allowing students to use the technology on their own time.

“I think students learn the most when you allow for a real-time evaluation of why they made the choices that they did in the simulation,” Brackett says.

Brackett, who says that faculty “buy-in” was easy, believes that would be the case at almost any institution. Field directors, in particular, will appreciate that students are better prepared for their field placements.

Ahead of implementation, Brackett says it’s useful for faculty to get together to discuss the objectives of the simulation and determine which classes are best suited for the technology. To that end, she recommends that faculty complete the simulation themselves and determine which courses best align with the content. Keep in mind that the technology may fit into multiple courses, she adds.

Planning in advance will help ensure that the technology is used to its fullest capabilities. In order to gain maximum value, it has to be much more than an afterthought. This should be completed ahead of the semester before classes start.

“When the simulation can reinforce the content in classes, it makes it more meaningful,” Brackett explains. “I recommend including it on the syllabus and truly integrating it into class so that students recognize its value from day one. We want them to view it as a component of completing the course.”

With Elizabeth City State University—and so many other institutions—facing uncertainty on how to approach upcoming semesters, simulation can be a valuable tool. “Finding a way to include more virtual activities as part of our everyday classroom activities is a definite part of our future,” Brackett says. “It really allows us to take what’s being taught in the classroom to a new level. I see the simulations as a form of problem-based learning. And when students do get in the field, they are better prepared.”

Kognito personnel have been studying the technology’s impact as a training tool. “We’ve been able to demonstrate efficacy and have found in separate experiences that there is a statistically significant increase in the preparedness and confidence of students going into the real world and having these conversations,” Singh says. “This type of learning tool will be an important piece of the instructional tapestry as social work institutions prepare social workers to meet the needs in today’s world.”

Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA–based freelance writer.