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November 21, 2002

HOW TO TEACH: Using technology to keep in touch

Can technology improve the integration of classroom and field experience?

Two Pitt social work professors conducted a pilot study last year to determine if web-based resources could help bridge the distance graduate students feel from the University setting when they're out in the field for their practicum experience.

Patricia Kolar and Kathryn Collins, faculty members in the School of Social Work, have developed a web-based resource page and on-line seminar that helps social work graduate students during their field practicum. Social work research assistant Ruthanne Hackman helped in the design and implementation of the web tools.

"We knew that students often feel a disconnect from the University when they are out doing fieldwork," typically 25 hours per week on-site supporting a social agency, Kolar said at the Nov. 15 Teaching Excellence Fair. "They feel isolated from faculty and feel unable to use the skills they learned in the classroom. Fieldwork supervisors are supposed to help with this disconnect, but fieldworkers are evaluated on productivity and so they're focused on 'doing.' The piece that gets lost is the actual connection between theory and practice."

"We wanted to find out: Can we use technology to bridge this disconnect?" Collins said.

With support from a provost's innovation in education grant, Kolar and Collins developed a web-based resource using a familiar course structure. The web site, accessible through PittNet, included links to resources helpful to carry out assignments, a virtual classroom for teaching sessions with students and field instructors, a schedule of proposed topics (similar to a syllabus), a roster with contact information and a communication link (discussion boards and chatrooms) for student reactions and interactions.

During fall 2001, Blackboard 5 was used to develop the integrative seminar for 25 first-year grad students placed in health care settings. In spring 2002, the resource was tested.

"We chose students working in health care agencies for our pilot study because they are more likely to be working in an area that has a web hook-up, and because they are less likely to know the technical terms that relate to their particular assignments," Kolar said.

Students, for example, could access published research on specific conditions their clients are facing.

During the term, the study yielded 1,942 hits on the site, mainly on the main content link (1,133) and the communication link (758). The trend of the hits was weighted toward evening hours, indicating that students were accessing the site less often while at the fieldwork agency.

The professors said the pilot study was a qualified success, but pointed out that the hits were not only from the 25 pilot study students as the word about the site as a useful resource spread among other social work graduate students.

"We do have a few 'lessons learned,'" Kolar said. "One was participation [among the test group] was limited because we did not require students to use this resource. Another was that students did not get involved with the training we offered at the beginning. Students have different [computer] skills and training has to be provided."

Further, the professors believe, students may become more interested if the resource is more generic and less specialized. Field instructors, while generally endorsing the concept, said they were often too busy during regular hours to participate, the professors added.

With increased demands on their time, Kolar said, field instructors have to prioritize their workloads sometimes at the expense of interactions with the students.

According to the two professors, the hope is that with more participation by both field instructors and students, buoyed by the prospect of current students eventually becoming practitioners themselves, the project will take a firmer foothold in the near future.

"We also would like to expand the seminar to include a component that has an application of ethics, to develop external links that are germane to health, aging, mental health, gerontology, child welfare, family therapy — every situation has ethical parameters — and we'd like to add links to various professional codes of ethics," Kolar said.

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 7

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