Transcript: The role of technology in rural social work

A presentation by Jane Pye, Lecturer in Social Work at Lancaster University

Podcast Episode: The role of technology in rural social work

Category: Social work (general) 


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

Kerry: Welcome to everyone, we are looking at exploring the role of technology in rural social work. So, I’m Kerry Musselbrook; I’m from Iriss and I’m going to be your chair for the session. I’m now delighted to introduce our speaker, Jane Pye. Jane is the senior teaching associate in social work in the department of sociology at Lancaster University. Prior to this role, Jane worked for 12 years in statutory social work and then spent a short period working in a children’s charity. Jane has a long, long interest in rural social work and through her work with the Cumbria-Lancaster Social Work Teaching Partnership was able to lead a small exploratory project in 2018/19 exploring the experiences of social workers working in rural settings and in many ways, this was a first; so, Jane is a pioneer.

This has led to further work in rurality, more recently with a focus on how to practically support social workers adjustment to working in rural and remote settings. Jane remains a registered social worker and continually seeks out opportunities to remain close to social work practice. So, I know that she’s open to being contacted if you wish. I’m now going to hand you over to Jane and it’s my pleasure to say, Jane, the floor is yours

Jane: Thank you very much Kerry for that lovely introduction and for hosting a chairing air today but also thank you to Lousie for your help in setting everything up. As Kerry said, my name is Jane Pye; I work at Lancaster University and I’m delighted to be here today, sort of sharing my thinking, I guess, in this webinar around rural social work and digital technology. A couple of things I want to say before I start is that just to be absolutely clear this is not a kind of tech webinar so as will probably become apparent, I’m definitely not a technically minded person. So, I’m not going to share tips and hints about how to use technology literally in practice. It’s a bit more of a kind of conceptual thinking about the role that technology could play in rural settings. And I also want to say that I don’t feel that I’m coming to this webinar arguing for one thing or the other. I’m not arguing that technology should be used in rural settings or that it shouldn’t. It’s more that I’m kind of curious to think about whether this relationship is something that we should be paying attention to. And I think I’ve come to a conclusion that it is something we need to pay attention to. So, I’m a little bit sitting on the fence in terms of thinking about technology in any kind of social work, actually, not just in a rural setting.

So, just as a sort of way of starting off and maybe giving a bit of background and context and really picking up on a couple of points that Kerry’s already kindly said and it explains the reason that I’ve kind of come to this point of thinking about digital technology in rural social work which is actually quite a new area of interest for me and probably has grown over the last 18 months only. As Kerry said, I’ve got a long-standing interest in rural social work and this comes from my own social work practice of working predominantly in urban settings but occasionally taking me into rural settings and suddenly realising that the contrast in terms of experience between rural and urban is very stark or it certainly was in my experience. So, it kind of led me to these questions about why don’t we think, certainly in England, very much about rural social work. And as I moved into the role that I’m in now, I was very lucky to be involved in this study in Cumbria that Kerry mentioned which had quite a profound impact on my thinking about rural social work. It was very powerful, speaking to social workers and hearing about their kind of day-to-day experiences. And one of the things that really came through very strikingly in this small study was the impact of travel and the sort of unacknowledged prevalence or centrality really of travelling that those rural social workers were experiencing in their day-to-day practice.

So, I was left with this kind of sense of travel is a really big deal in rural social work and we don’t really think about that probably as much as we should; we don’t give it enough attention. And then of course, as we all know, we’re so used to talking about now, we all experienced the pandemic and the move to, or the push towards us all having to, to some degree, embrace digital technology as a way of really keeping our own kind of work and personal lives moving and staying connected with people. And that kind of sudden, I suppose for me, realisation of what digital technology could bring into our world was again, very striking and connected closely with me thinking about what does this mean for social work practice. And that alongside a brilliant idea by Colin, who I think might be here today, that maybe a few of us or it’s about time perhaps a few of us came together and wrote a book about rural social work. So, it provided me with this opportunity to, I suppose, take a deep breath and offer to write something about digital technology in rural social work. It kind of prompted me to really have to investigate this kind of growing interest that I had.

So, the thoughts that I’m sharing today have really come out of my sort of research into writing the chapter for the book which we hope to be published at some time in the future. The irony of all this, is I’m actually pretty rubbish at technology so the fact that I’m even managing to do this today is kind of like a bit of a personal miracle for me. So, I feel like in some ways a bit of a fraud in talking about technology but hopefully what I will try to do is share my thinking about technology broadly in relation to practice, like I say, not in terms of the specifics of how we might do this. And I also want to acknowledge that others have done really great work already around social work and technology and I think I certainly don’t want to be coming to this today suggesting that what I’m talking about is necessarily completely new. Denise Turner has, for a long time, been talking about, or asking us to consider the potentials of using technology in social work practice and in education and really kind of in creative ways; which I think is important. She’s recently, very recently edited a book with Michael Fanner, I think it was just released or published about 2 months ago, I think, so great work to delve into if you’re more interested. I also want to mention Amanda Beswick Taylor, who again people may be familiar with who, in my view, has been perhaps a bit of a lone voice over a number of years.

Raising questions and asking us as a social work profession to think about digital technology from a perspective of, we need to really engage with thinking about what it means if this sort of technology kind of seeps its way into practice without us thinking about that critically. And what that could mean in terms of privacy, ethics, confidentiality, etc. So, two or three names there amongst many others who’ve already written lots of good stuff about technology in social work. I guess, my particular interest that I’m really coming at this from today, is my interest in how or the potential that digital technology has to mitigate or reduce the pressure caused by travel when social workers are working rurally and the expectation that much of their time is literally spent travelling. So, that’s my kind of angle, I suppose, or what prompted me to be so interested in this subject. So, I’m just going to talk about travel for a few minutes and then move on to talk about technology and then hopefully bring the two together as we work through the slides.

So, my starting point with this is that social workers are travelling professionals and I mean that for social workers working rurally or in urban setting. I think our practice is that we move around, we see people and I think that’s a positive aspect of our ways of doing social work, certainly in the UK. However, this travel does involve the car in the UK generally because of the lack of public transport infrastructure so when we talk about social workers being travelling professionals we mean travelling by car. And that’s especially, of course, the case in rural and remote places because as we know in many of those places there is absolutely no other option but to travel or by car or walk if you were really very keen. And this means that for rural social workers a lot of time is spent actively travelling and what I mean by actively travelling is literally driving. So, unlike other professions or other roles which may involve travel, perhaps going to a meeting, travelling from one city to another, and so people are able to sit on a train and use that time to work on whatever it might be they have going on; social workers don’t have that. So, certainly my experience, the travel in nature is active and there’s limitations of what else social workers can do while they’re literally driving a car. And I think that also means that the car has become a very important site of practice and I’m going to touch a bit more on this later on.

So, the car is significant, it’s no longer or perhaps it’s never been simply a vehicle for moving or for travelling or moving a person from one place to another, it means more than that, I think, for lots of social workers working rurally. And that of course has an issue or has issues attached to it and I think increasingly we have to think about our sort of our responsibilities around the environmental impact of travel in our profession of social work.

I’m not advocating for us all to suddenly stop travelling around but I do think this is something we cannot, not engage with. So, there’s a kind of tricky paradox around the importance of the car but the need to consider perhaps alternatives because of the environmental issues that we all know we have to actively do something about. So, that’s kind of my position on travel.

I’m going to just talk about technology for a few minutes and then like I say, hopefully bring the two together. So, when I’m talking about technology this is where I feel slightly out of my depth with not feeling terribly kind of knowledgeable, confident about actual technology. I take quite a broad view about what this word technology or digital technology means. And helpfully BASW have done some work, quite recently, the digital capability statement for social workers where they’ve provided this helpful kind of list, I guess or categories of different types of digital technology. As you can see, hopefully, on the slide. These are just screenshots from the BASW website so of course obviously you can go and investigate these in a bit more depth. But you can see here the kind of types of technology, I think, maybe that’s the right way of putting it have been categorised into stuff that’s around electronic systems, online resources and assisted technologies, etc. But there is a kind of a whole range of stuff that would qualify as being digital technology but my interest here is particularly in the type of technology that can support, enhance or maybe even replace, controversially I think, in person communication and contact in social work. And this is because I’m interested in hearing this issue around travel and whether technology could be an appealing way of reducing the time spent travelling by social workers. So, I’m talking here literally about visits or meetings that would have been held in person, can they be held using some kind of platform instead and be held virtually so reducing the time and the environmental impact of travel. So, I think this is an interesting area to explore however I don’t think it is straightforward and I think there are a range of things that we really have to properly think about before lurching, perhaps, towards thinking that digital technology provides an answer to some of the challenges that social workers experience when they are travelling a lot.

So, I just want to spend a bit of time now thinking about, I suppose, highlighting some of my concerns or things that I think we need to really carefully consider. And my first and I suppose my primary worry and I suppose the thing I’m really going to stress the most today is my worry about access to technology. Particularly in rural settings, we know there’s lots of evidence out there to indicate that broadband and internet connections are not to be assumed to be adequate in rural and urban settings. And it kind of bothers me that people who, I hope this isn’t unfair but often people who are making decisions about what rural social work practice should look like are very often, I think, based in quite urban settings. And may not really fully appreciate that it is absolutely the case that lots of communities are not, don’t experience good connectivity. And even if those communities and individual households, etc, do have some kind of connection to the internet, it’s not always good enough to be of the sort of highest quality to enable perhaps a video call or a meeting to be held online. So, it really bothers me that this could be a kind of a hidden problem if we move towards embracing digital technology, particularly in rural social work practice. Actually, could we be further marginalising and excluding already marginalised groups of people? So, this is for me, I guess, my biggest concern about a suggestion, or my perceived suggestion perhaps that technology is going to be sort of pushed as a way of trying to reduce some of this travel that social workers have to engage in.

There are other issues around access as well as broadband and internet connections. We also should not assume in any area of social work practice, actually, that people using services have access to hardware and devices. So, have the literal kind of physical equipment that’s needed to connect to the internet, even if a particular area is known to be well connected. There’s a real potential for those of us who are fortunate to have access to work equipment and laptops and it becomes such a sort of an embedded part of our lives that we forget that is not the case for everyone. It’s imperative that we, again, don’t forget that people may not have the equipment needed. Similarly, the cost of, even if connections are in place and the equipment’s in place, what about the cost of paying monthly subscriptions? And I think this is becoming even more of a crisis to consider given a so-called cost of living crisis.

We know that lots of people across the nation are living in real poverty and it’s going to get worse, there’s no question about that. We already know people are wondering how to feed their families so, it doesn’t seem to me, a stretch of the imagination at all to imagine that people are not going to be able to pay monthly subscriptions to be connected. And again, it worries me that if we don’t adequately consider that we could be further marginalising people, if we are expecting them to connect with their social workers digitally. But even if all of that access stuff is in place, there’s still some questions for me about assuming people have the skills and knowledge to access digital technology safely. And I’m not so keen on this language but it is the language that tends to be around to describe the different sort of groups of people who might be described as digital immigrants, so people who have not, I guess, grown up using technology and digital natives, referring perhaps younger people who have not experienced a world without technology.

So, the so-called kind of digital divide; people who are actively comfortably using technology and those of us who aren’t. And we know that the profile of people living in rural and remote settings. This is a bit of a broad-brush statement, I know this, but often that the profile of those people are older people. People who might be called digital immigrants and that’s not to suggest that older people can’t use technology. But I think there is something to consider here about could we be assuming that people, even if they have all this equipment, are able and comfortable and happy to use technology in order to connect with services? And added to that, I think there is a question about whether organisations and practitioners are open to using technology.

You know, I’m not quite sure that, it’s a while now since I was in practice, but I’m not sure that I was, certainly when I was in practice, I was quite scared of it. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, I might have said, I’m up for it but I don’t know that I was really truly skilled enough to use technology in practice in the way that I’m talking about today, i.e. having a kind of ongoing online contact with people I’m working with. So, I think this question of access is central and we can’t really move this conversation forward until we really think about the need for ensuring that if we are going to enhance practice by using technology that we don’t inadvertently end up marginalising people. So, a really crucial point to think about but I don’t want it to feel kind of negative and sort of what can’t happen. I think it’s really important to spend a few minutes thinking about what could we see if we were confident and it is a big if, but if we were confident about access and about all these things being in place in terms of being connected and having the right equipment.

What might that mean for social work practice, in rural settings? Well, I think it certainly creates some possibilities. And I think that perhaps the most important thing here is that people who want to access services might prefer virtual contact through cost, through convenience, through it feeling less intrusive. I say this being very alert to the fact that not all social work practice is suitable to be done online. And I’m kind of conscious of risk and safeguarding type areas of practice which may by their nature involve an element of intrusive practice which I know is not the area that we all feel particularly drawn to be part of but nevertheless that is often part of our responsibilities. So, I think it’s important to kind of be open to whether online contact could work for people who are using services; perhaps who are struggling to meet social workers in other contexts so, we mustn’t forget this potential. I also think that maybe it could offer a greater level of flexibility, we know about agile working in touch down places; maybe even social workers sometimes working in cars.

I think we have to be really careful about confidentiality if when we talk about agile working, we’re meaning people literally sort of working out and about in public settings. So, I think there’s always an air of caution around that. I think there is some evidence to suggest that agile working does help with workload efficiency for social workers due to its flexibility but the jury is definitely still out around agile working. And there are lots of problems with the sense of isolation that social workers can feel if they are never connected to a group of colleagues. So, like I say, the jury is out I think for me in relation to agile working. But going back to the point I made before, there is clearly a consideration around the cost of driving and also its environmental impact. I recall, very vividly, a conversation with a manager, a senior manager, in a local county council in the work that I’ve been involved in previously, talking about the very real challenges of social workers having enough money to be able to fill their cars with fuel in order to do visits because often that involved a lot of travelling. And of course, we know social workers, I think the model is usually that social workers can reclaim their expenses but social workers aren’t paid a lot of money and actually having the money to be able to put fuel in cars to start with was a massive challenge in this particular rural setting. Now that must be even worse than ever now with the cost of fuel prices that we’ve seen over the last month or so. So, I think, the potential of perhaps doing less travel and having some contact online, I can see could help with those issues although I’m certainly not arguing that that’s something that we should sort of enhance or harness without thinking really carefully about what we would lose if we did go down this track of really embracing digital technology.

So, what would we lose, in my view? And this is the stuff that I think is really hard to give a real kind of tangible hard explanation of, but I’m going to try and hopefully you’ll pick up the sense of what I’m referring to. I’m really concerned that if we did move down a route of using technology instead of in-person contact entirely, and I’m absolutely not advocating for that in any way, I’m really worried about what that would mean in terms of the relational aspect of social work practice. And some lovely colleagues, Karen Broadhurst and Clarie Mason wrote a brilliant paper, as you can see, a number of years ago. Way before the pandemic, in which they kind of, perhaps, foresaw maybe some of this suggestion about the role of technology arising in social work. And they really argued that actually being co-present was really powerful in social work practice. And that using the move, or the potential move to use technology could really be damaging in terms of those important relationships that we work so hard to create. And I think that’s especially the case and we can all imagine those difficult conversations that we’ve had where people we’re working with are distressed or unhappy and how actually just being literally with someone in that same space creates a connection in a way that, I don’t feel, like we’ve got sussed out online. Maybe we will eventually but I would really be worried about that kind of intangible aspect of relational practice that could be lost if we move to using technology all the time.

Social workers want to work in a relationship-based way, I think that’s why most of us were drawn into the profession, it would really concern me if this was no longer considered a key aspect of our work. What would that mean for people being attracted to become social workers? And I also think that particularly in rural settings, my experience is that social workers have strong connections with the communities that they work with which, they consider, they service. And actually, being present in those communities is really important; it’s a kind of key aspect of their role and how they see themselves contributing to that community by having a presence there which clearly would be lost if we moved to doing lots and lots of stuff online. And this point about the car is a real tricky one because it’s certainly problematic because of its environmental impact but there’s also strong evidence to demonstrate that it is an important site of containment for social workers. And sort of interestingly where social workers talk about experience in emotional nourishment and what I mean by that is social workers talking about coming perhaps away from a difficult meeting or a difficult visit or whatever it may be and retreating to the car. And that driving time that I talked about before being a really important reflection time often driving through, you know, outstandingly beautiful rural areas so a real kind of sense of satisfaction sort of created by being in these very beautiful places. So, the car’s tricky because on one hand it’s not a good thing but it certainly provides something or is a key aspect of the reality of social workers practising on a day-to-day basis.

So, I just want to take a bit of a side step to mention social media as well which I feel very kind of inexperienced with. And I mentioned before that I feel a bit of a fraud talking about technology because I don’t feel it’s something that I really know much about in terms of its practical use. However, what it did make me think about when I was preparing for this webinar is that even in my very limited use and understanding of social media; actually, it was really easy for me to think of immediately four ways that I’ve connected with a community of people through the use of social media. So, I’m not even on Facebook but I managed to find my way onto some kind of Facebook site to connect with, like half the rest of the world, an online yoga class during when we were in the kind of height of the pandemic lockdown. I’m a member of loads of different teams’ sites through work; some of which I’ve set up myself, some of which I’ve been invited into, so I’m connecting to a load of people there. WhatsApp is a great way of arranging social occasions for me or connecting with my friends outside of work. And of course, Twitter, I think lots of people will probably have heard about this webinar via Twitter, so again, an amazing way of connecting with people.

But my point here is that even for someone who is useless with technology when I think about it, I use these platforms to connect all the time and it really makes me think about the potential for supporting community connections in our practice, working rurally. So, it makes me think about settings and locations that are absolutely excluded and marginalised partly due to their geographic locations. But what if we could really harness some of these platforms? I’m saying that being very wary about awareness of confidentiality and all kinds of other sort of issues around the use of social media. But if we could support communities to kind of self-organise and to connect, it strikes me as such a strong or such a potential way to help communities feel more empowered, particularly those communities that we know, as I say, feel very marginalised and disconnected, very often. So, there’s a question mark for me about the role of social media but I can see that there’s some real potential with that. Although I don’t really feel qualified enough to say exactly how that would work, given my sort of slight nervousness around using social media myself.

So, where does all this kind of lead us to or where do I think we’ve got to and where really do we need to go next in relation to technology and rural social work? Well, I don’t really see a nice smooth, easy road ahead. I suspect there’s a number of issues and problems and challenges that are probably lurking around as we, probably inevitably, end up using more technology to stay connected and to support and enhance and supplement, perhaps, in-person contact. And I think my sort of position here is that we can’t pretend that this is not happening, not that I’m suggesting anyone is doing, but we have to engage with this and we have to engage with this idea around technology and social work, particularly in terms of rural social work critically. We can’t let technology savvy, non-social workers lead us into technology enhanced practice. And what I mean by that is I have a worry; it’s connected to the idea of the marketisation of social work, I have a worry that people who really get technology could start to develop platforms and things which are kind of sold to us as something that will really help practice. And it could almost kind of run away from us and be led by people who have got a technology head rather than a social work head, if that makes sense. And that really concerns me, particularly because I think there is some evidence that often those platforms are developed, not considering really important issues around privacy and confidentiality, ethical sort of issues.

But also, the potential for data harvesting which I think other writers have talked about and I think we’ve all become much more aware of how our data is absolutely harvested by these big tech companies. So, I’m really concerned about how, if we don’t sort of engage with this, I’m worried that someone, I don’t know who; some tech companies could kind of move into our social work space and set us off down a track that it’s very hard to pull back from. I think one of the ways that we can do something about addressing this and I hold this as a responsibility that I absolutely will take forward in my role, is social work education must embed this critical awareness of the use of technology into qualifying programmes. So, our new social work colleagues who are joining us need to be alert to thinking about what it means to work using technology and the kind of ethical considerations around that.

So, my final kind of summary point, or my final sort of conclusion, I guess, is that whilst I do see some benefits and opportunities around the use of digital technology and I want to be open to that; I remain very concerned about making sure that if we are going to see an enhancement of technology to support practice that we make sure that we do that considering all the ethical aspects of what it means to work in a digitally enhanced way. So, that’s the end of my presentation.

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