Talking Technology Competency in the Social Work Classroom


Elise Johnson, LCSW is a clinical social worker at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center/Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital of Long Beach. She has practiced social work in the L.A. area for over 20 years in the areas of health care, mental health, homelessness and child welfare.  She is also a part time lecturer. She is by no means an expert in technology but is always on the lookout for technological innovations that could help clients and students. In this blog post, she writes about how she incorporates technology into her MSW courses.

I’ve been in the field of social work for nearly twenty five years, and I’ve been a lecturer for two and a half at California State University, Dominguez Hills.  I teach two theory classes (Human Behavior I and II) in the MSW program.  Given my clinical background, my overarching message in HBSE (Human Behavior and the Social Environment) is that theory is viable and applicable to contemporary social work practice.  The incorporation of technology into my pedagogy is an important element of that framework.  Integral to my teaching approach is the view that technology is an asset, an assistive value; one that should be viewed through a strengths-based lens similar to  every other aspect of our profession. Initially, I decided to dedicate a week to the topic of technology in social work practice,  and over the last couple of years, I have updated long-standing assignments by embedding them technology-based elements. For example, first year MSW students are developing competencies conducting bio-psychosocial assessments in other courses,  In  HBSE I, I encourage them to expand this traditional assessment to include an assessment of their clients’ technology literacy, access, strengths and risk factors across the lifespan.   By integrating course content and assignments around technology in social work practice, students not only understand the role of  technology in social work, they also learn to apply and practice with the very technology they may use in the real-world.  

I introduced technology into my lectures and assignments because of what I’m doing in my clinical practice. Like most social workers, I have begun to be more aware of the role technology plays in my patients lives’, and have been interested in how advances in technology can provide adjunct treatment interventions at low costs.  Aligned with my dual educational objectives to link theory with practice and to prepare students for the work force, I have expanded my syllabus accordingly. Given that most of my students could be described as digital natives, coupled with the fact that they are developing an awareness of the holistic nature of our clients’ lives, they welcome this incorporation of technology, both as a course topic and opportunities to practice with technology.

During one week each semester, technology and social work is the primary topic for both my courses.  Students review their foundational materials on systems theory, social networking and life course theories through a lens of a digital age.  They are also assigned reading that includes the NASW’s Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice ( NASW/ABSW, 2005;  NASW, 2016) and include articles and blog posts (including this one) that are focused on the use of social media in social work. To prepare for class discussion, I also ask them to do the following:

Task 1: Agency Website Review
I ask them to go to their field placement website and critically evaluate it from the perspective of prospective and current clients as well as from the point of view of a social worker seeking to refer clients to that agency.

 – From their clients’ point of view, evaluate the agency’s website via a common search engine (Bing or Google) evaluate ease of navigation, language options, fee or insurance acceptance structure and location (mapped with bus routes?).  Can prospective clients self-refer easily? If so, how is that done?

 – Can you form any opinions about how trauma-informed the agency may appear from the website?

 – From the perspective of a social worker seeking to refer a client, how easy was it to find via the following search engines/resource platforms:  211, Healthy City, Google, Healthify or others?  Once on the website, apply the same questions as in task 1 but viewed through a colleague’s lens.  Lastly, is there a page that summarizes relevant information about the agency (in Spanish?) that can easily be printed and handed to a client (including directions/map/).

 – Go on Yelp and Google and read the reviews of the agency. Are there any? Do you agree or disagree with those comments?

 – Look up their agency’s social media presence using your personal social media platforms. Does that site reflect the mission and purpose of the agency? What is the purpose of that social media page?

 – If your agency is not included in one of the social service referral sites listed above (211, Healthify, 1 Degree, Healthy City), or if the information is out-dated, could you update it easily? If not, why not?

Task 2: Social Media Policy Review
At your field placement, ask to review the policies and procedures about social media and digital communication with clients. Try to determine:

 – Are there policies? If so, who sets those policies? (Communications director? H.R.? Someone else?)

 – What are the established boundaries? Are those boundaries codified?

 – Consider:

  1. One-to-one communication: Do clients have your cell phone number? (yours or the agency’s) Should you be Instagram/Snapchat/Facebook “friends”?  Do your clients have email?
  2. According to the current NASW guidelines, should you access to clients’ Fb/Insta/Snapchat, photos, stories, etc.?
  3. Blogs: Do the agency’s social workers, admin or volunteers blog? If so, how is privacy protected?
  4. Are volunteers held to different boundary standards than staff?  If so, what are they?

On the day of class I begin with a lecture on the subject of social media including the boundaries, the beauty and the beasts.  I cite several sources for this lecture, all of which are easily available.  We review the assigned readings. Lively engagement always occurs as students often have plenty of opinions on the subject of social media. These “digital natives” are experts in social media and they are tuned in to new trends.  I love hearing their opinions about trends for the future. Many have experienced some of the pitfalls of social media and are sensitive to potential destructive elements.   Most interesting for me is that they are also open to the possibilities of nontraditional approaches such as after hours communication, texting clients for administrative as well as clinical purposes.  In many cases, field placement agencies have not set up policies around these elements and students welcome guidelines. Lastly, one of the most interesting things I’ve seen is that as a result of their interest in technology at their field placement (even if it’s an assigned task) coupled with their youth, the students are then perceived as “experts” in all things technology.  Given that they are new social workers with a seemingly overwhelming set of skills to learn, my students express a bit of pride that they have areas of expertise that their more experienced supervisors may not have. We explore the responsibility that comes with the perception of expertise and by and large, the students endeavor to take this newfound role, deserved or not, seriously.  I am always so impressed with my students’ core values and ethics and I am so grateful to participate in the journey to the social work profession.


National Association of Social Workers & Association of Social Work Boards [NASW/ASWB] (2005).  NASW Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice. Washington  DC: National Association of Social Workers.

National Association of Social Workers. (2016). Draft Technology Standards in Social Work Practice. Washington  DC: National Association of Social Workers.

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

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