Social Work Embraces Technology, Provides iPads for Faculty and Staff

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The College of Social Work is putting instructors to the test in their newest learning technology project. iPads were provided to faculty and staff college-wide last month, as well as the first of many collaborative training sessions through the Office of the Chief Information Officer. Teaching, research, community practice, and productivity are the focus areas for the initiative, with an emphasis on using iPads at a higher level than their toyish reputation implies.

Adapting to Student Learning Styles

"I think that how young people learn has changed completely," said Tom Gregoire, dean of the College of Social Work. "We don’t prepare people just to practice in regular communities anymore. We prepare people to work in virtual communities."

Social Work faculty and staff are expressing similar sentiments.

"We're catching up to where students have been," said Denise Bronson, associate dean and director of the Master of Social Work program. "Students have been bringing laptop computers into the classrooms for probably the last five years on a regular basis."

"I like the iPad because it's flat, and people are not hidden," said Bronson, recalling her first experience with technology in the classroom, when laptops acted primarily as distractions rather than learning tools.

Bronson said her approach to technology in the classroom is changing with this initiative.

"If we start making this a much more interactive process, rather than the old traditional didactic lecture, I don't think people are going to be reading the newspaper, reading their mail and doing those things," she said. "They'll be using this to be engaged – even if it's something as simple as answering impromptu questions that are raised in class."

Benefits Outside the Classroom

Many benefits of this technology will be enjoyed outside of the classroom. Social Work educators and students are drawn to the tablet’s mobility because much of their learning and research happens in the Columbus community. Practitioners are close enough to travel regularly between the campus and their fieldwork, but far enough away that the mobility of their tools is key.

"We are so community-based," said Gregoire. "Anything that enables people to get out into the community, to be places virtually, is going to be a real tool for us."

Michael Madry has already improved productivity in his role as Field Practicum Coordinator. Working to connect students with agencies and other opportunities for experience in the field requires heavy travel and documentation.

"I'm out in the community a lot traveling around and it’s helpful when we’re reviewing learning agreements, filling out supervision documentation," he said. "It makes things go faster for me. It makes my job easier and there’s a lot less time recording."

Madry is entertaining the idea of virtually supervising his students working in the field by using the iPad to watch the student work over a videoconferencing tool like Skype or FaceTime.

Field Placement Coordinator Elon Simms said the iPads are a huge improvement from the dozens of notebooks and loose paper previously used for their documentation.

"In any given year I help upwards of 500 students with their placement," he said, “and I’m working on a lot of different lists and data spreadsheets at a time. Keeping everything separate is important for me. Finding myself flipping through all of these notepads and papers searching just got to be too much, but with the iPad it's all there."

In an environment where front-line educators are meeting higher expectations to take on multiple projects, courses and development efforts in parallel, tools that allow them to increase productivity are always beneficial. Tasks could be as simple as checking e-mails from a waiting room, and those opportunities add up.

"We're able to do things more efficiently," Simms said. We can get things done quicker and work on other projects within the college, maximizing our capabilities."

Connecting with Donors

The iPad project is already proving a worthy investment with its active role in fundraising. Jennifer Heller, director of Development, recently used her iPad in a presentation to donors in another state. Dean Gregoire recorded a personalized video greeting to the couple, which Heller was able to play on her iPad from the comfort of their living room.

"They were quite pleased when I opened my iPad and said I was able to bring Tom with me after all," Heller said. "Because I hadn't used it for long, I worried that I would mess something up, but it was just so simple."

In his video, Gregoire discussed Social Work's current projects, including the iPad initiative, and followed up on his last interaction with the donors, closing by inviting them to Ohio State for a personal tour of the college.

"In my work there's nothing like face-to-face contact," Heller said. "Sometimes you can't have as much of that as you want, but now I can do more, in a way. I'm never going to ask for a gift over my iPad, but so much of what's involved with a donor happens before and after the actual asking."

Financial gifts come in to the college from all over the nation. Another donor in Phoenix is funding the installation of a lobby display for Stillman Hall. Coordinating a visit so that the donor could make a trip and see the installation in progress has proved difficult, but technology offered an alternative. "Since I have an iPad, with FaceTime or Skype I can virtually show our donor every step of the process," Heller said.

Cultural Transformation

Returns on this investment are more than financial gains. Cultural and pedagogical changes are already present at this early stage in the project.

"I think we're in one of those times where we're making a paradigm shift in how we educate and how we think about that," said Gregoire, "and while I could never predict what it might look like in 10 years, I think it's my job to get people the tools to create what it's going to look like."

The giddy energy around the training sessions and everyday use of the iPads is palpable, showing a strong reception to Gregoire's vision. From online course development to interdepartmental community growth and work in the field, faculty and staff are heavily invested into repurposing the iPads from an entertainment novelty into an effective, innovative resource to benefit their students.

The Office of the CIO's Learning Technology Outreach Team provides the iPad trainings as a part of enhancing the iPad project's effectiveness and quality assurance. Surveys administered to the trainees after each rollout and in-depth session show an overwhelmingly positive response. An iPad website is also in development to offer the faculty and staff training videos, blog articles, and other valuable resources.

"Those of us who have been educators for a long time need to re-vamp a little bit," Bronson said. "There are faculty who I would have never thought would have gotten excited about this, who are embracing it completely and seeking out other learning opportunities to master the technology. I think it’s good for everybody; it’s stretching our brains a little bit. It’s making us think in a fun and exciting way."

This Social Work program may well be the pilot of a larger university initiative to embrace technology as part of the learning experience. If you are interested in applying this to your college or department, contact Michael Hofherr, OCIO senior director of Learning Technology, at 614-247-6891 or hofherr.3@osu.edu.