Using digital technology in practice teaching- what a difference a decade makes

By Hilary Lawson

I have been working with practitioners involved in the teaching of social work practice for over 10 years, and World Social Work Day has given me an opportunity to reflect on how the increased availability of digitalised audio and visual technology has positively impacted on teaching and learning techniques.

Good social work practice rests and falls on the practitioner’s ability to build trusting purposeful relationships with others. The same applies to the teaching of social work students. The practice teaching relationship, where small gestures and phrases convey understanding and collaboration, can be the site of enormous learning and change. How can we help practice teachers get this right?

When a new course for practice teachers was introduced in the early 1990s we experimented with the idea of asking the practice teachers to tape themselves working with their student. The tape was brought to the seminar and discussed in a small supportive group of other trainee practice teachers. This intense focus on the way the practice teacher conducted the session – their manner, their responses, how they helped the student reflect on theory and practice- was consistently rated as producing huge learning for all involved. However, it always felt that such was the difficulty in finding and using the technology, it was a fine line between the technology both facilitating  but also hindering learning.

Back then, making a video tape of a practice teacher supervising a student required an enormous amount of setting up. Family centres were one of the few places where a video recorder could be found, and these were large cumbersome things on tri-pods. The practice teacher and student had to visit the centre to record themselves. When we then watched the resultant video in the seminar there would be acres of footage of both the student and practice teacher looking at the camera with anxious expressions and the practice teacher shouting to some off-camera assistant “is it on? Is it recording?”. When they had satisfied themselves that it was indeed “on” it could take many minutes before the pair relaxed into anything that resembled their “normal supervision”.

Watching the video in the small group of peers could also be stressful for the practice teacher. Their obsession with how often they saw themselves twiddle their hair, their astoundment at “do I really sound like that?” would interfere so much with what they could learn about their supervisory practice, that I often gave them the tape at the end for them to look at again at home once they had become more sensitised to what they looked like on camera.

So, when, last week, I was teaching another generation of practice teachers I reflected on the difference a decade makes. When I set them the task of bringing in a recording of themselves, there was little fuss.  Today we are used to using technology to capture moving images of ourselves and most people were able to lay their hands very easily on a smartphone, portable camcorder or pocket sized digital recorder. They transferred their recording onto a dvd or usb stick and we viewed their work huddled around lap-tops or, for those who could bear seeing themselves movie-star size, on the seminar room projector screen.

Sometimes the student had opted to remain audible but invisible and in these cases we watched just the practice teacher and her responses – still a very valuable learning experience for those who are worried about compromising their student’s or supervisee’s confidentiality. I hope the use of visual and audio technology will play an increasingly important role in both teaching social work students and indeed in the continuing professional development of supervisory staff throughout the organisation.


March 18, 2012. World Social Work Day.


  1. Barry Luckock replied:

    Hilary’s enthusiasm for the opportunities provided by technology should be extended, I think, to the direct SW practice encounter. We will understand much more clearly what makes practice ethical and effective when we can see what is actually going on when the SW meets the citizen and forms a social relationship that is both legitimate and makes a difference. I have heard reports that at least one Assisted and Supported Year in Employment programme is basing supervision (and perhaps assessment) of Newly Qualified Social Workers on their recordings of the direct work they are doing. I am involved in a research project that seeks to establish more clearly what Social Workers actually say in their direct practice in order that we can begin to understand better what might work.

  2. ermintrude2 replied:

    I am always interested in the use of different teaching styles. I’m a Practice Educator and remember learning about these different styles when I did my course. It’s useful to remember as well as different learning styles we also have different communication styles. I am excited to see how these different opportunities will develop in different settings.

  3. hilarylawson replied:

    Hello ermintrude
    Thanks for your comment! I agree with you that we all have different communication styles shaped by both individual, and social factors such as family and culture. One of the benefits of using digital technology in the way I have described is it gives practitioners and practice teachers a chance to really un-pick how we conduct interviews and supervision sessions. We also need to be able to adapt our way of relating to whoever is in the room with us, as service users and students also have their own different communication styles. The use of digital technology provides an opportunity to scrutinise these hitherto private encounters, but it has to be used with caution I think! It can be incredibly exposing for the practice teacher as our way of relating to the world is bound up with who we are. I would argue its crucial that such work takes place in small supportive groups where the practice teachers feel safe. Observers need to be skilled in giving feedback which is affirming and constructive as well as challenging. I also think we need to be very clear about whether and how such recordings are assessed if they are being used for academic or professional credit. On our practice teacher course, for example, we don’t assess the work in the video for fear it will encourage practice teachers to show “their best” rather than what they can learn from the most. However, we do assess how they have reflected on their experience of showing the recording and their learning from that, which in fact is how we know it really is an extremely powerful learning tool…… I’d be pleased to hear others’ experiences of using digital technology in this way, too.

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