#SWvirtualpal: Hashtagging for Connection

This post was written by myself and my colleague, Amanda Taylor from the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kindgom.  Please check out Amanda’s work with ‘Use of Book Groups in Social Work Education’, which can be found on Twitter: @SWBookGroup. She is definitely one of my #SWvirtualpals.

smart_phone_texting_block_text_10927-1Pen Pals have been a ‘thing’ for a very long time.  The earliest record of their usage, that we can find, is reported as being led by an ‘innovative Iowa teacher’ called Birdie Matthews, who at the time employed the methodology to bring the realities of WW II into the classroom (Myers-Verhage, 1995). Matthews  creativity in the classroom quite possibly led to one of the most famous pen pal relationships of all time, and this was between Juanita Wagner (her student at the time) and Anne Frank.  So why are we telling you all of this?  Well, before the internet the likelihood of a social work academic in the US, working closely and supportively with a social work academic in the UK would have been ‘virtually’ unheard of, or indeed a fairly disparate affair, which would have been laborious to maintain.  However, thankfully for us technologies have changed the way we work and the way we connect.  Today’s digital and social media  present all sorts of possibilities and opportunities; and being social workers with our default set on creativity, we decided quite a way back now to exploit all it is that technology affords.

Our mutual interests in creative teaching methodologies and an awareness of the benefits of digitalization led to us connecting online, via twitter… neither of us can actually remember when or why but it is suffice to say our like-mindedness took control.  A fairly recent Skype chat highlighted that us being together in the same space was not going to result in any other than trouble and it is in this blog that we would like to offer you all the opportunity to join us in our troublesome-ness.  Why do we use the word trouble?  Well we are all so busy and never have enough time to do everything we want to do … this was pretty much how the conversation went.  But once we got past this the need to create and innovate overtook.  We talked about connections and the benefits of being connected.  We talked about geography and shared ideas and resources about ‘connectography’ (Khanna, 2016), and the way in which the world is becoming a smaller place and also a much more diverse place.  We went on to think about our respective student groups and how we could facilitate their learning in terms of the wider world.  This for one reason or another led us to the notion of peer support, communities of learning and the fact that exposure to knowledge did not need to be such a local affair.  Within these creative moments we came up with the idea of social work pen pals.  We thought about how pre-modern digitization – the pen and paper technologies – facilitated connections and how that we had at our fingertips Twitter, a device and the hashtag.  

And thus, the hashtag #SWvirtualpal was born.  The purpose of this hashtag is to create professional connections between social work students, practitioners, and academics across the planet.  The hashtag can be used to  connect with a social worker in another location – another county or country.    There are many advantages to having a #SWvirtualpal such as broadening one’s professional network, learning about social work practice in other parts of the world, expanding  one’s understanding of the global social environment, improving one’s digital skill set, and finding new friends (think self-care). Here are some general tips for connecting with a colleague on the other side of the world:

  1. Reach out to several students and/or professionals.  It may take some time before you find a good fit with a #SWvirtualpal.
  2. Let the person  know about #SWvirutalpal and why you are reaching out to them.
  3. Share general information about your professional interests, courses, or work.
  4. Ask questions about your #SWvirtualpal’s professional background and interests.
  5. Check in periodically with your #SWvirtualpal.  
  6. While we use the hashtag on Twitter, you could use it on other social media platforms that support tagging.

For help finding a #SWvirtualpal, you can:

  • Follow @SWVirtualpal on Twitter and see who else is following. 
  • Subscribe to our Twitter list of people using the #SWvirtualpal hashtag at: https://twitter.com/SWVirtualPal/lists/swvirtualpals.  See who is on the list and reach out to someone.
  • Ask to be added to our #SWvirtualpal Twitter list by tweeting @AMLTaylor66 (Amanda Taylor) and/or @laurelhitchcock (Laurel Hitchcock) directly.  We will add your name to this list and someone may reach out to you. 
  • Do a hashtag search and see who else is tweeting with #SWvirtualpal.  Review who is using the hashtag and see if they might be a good fit for your #SWvirtualpal.

When you find your #SWvirtualpal, let’s by send out a tweet that might look like this – “I found my #SWvirtualpal & we talk about Social Media in SW edu. @AMLTaylor66 @laurelhitchcock”

In the classroom, social work educators could encourage their students to find a #SWvirtualpal or develop an “exchange” with a social work classroom in another part of the world.  The possibilities are endless.  Please note this is an informal way for professionals to connect and share with each other, not a therapeutic approach or referral for services.  Check with your local community for direct services.  

We will be periodically checking out #SWvirtualpal to see what happens and to offer support.  Remember you can follow us on Twitter at @AMLTaylor66 (Amanda Taylor) and @laurelhitchcock (Laurel Hitchcock).   Let us know if you have any questions!  

To learn how to incorporate #SWVirtualpal in your social work classroom, please see our Educator’s Guide.


Khanna, P. (2016). How megacities are changing the map of the world. TED. Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/parag_khanna_how_megacities_are_changing_the_map_of_the_world?language=en

Myers-Verhage, S. (1995). Postmarked from Amsterdam: Anne Frank and her Iowa Pen Pal. Palimpsest. Available at: http://www.traces.org/anne.html.

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

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