A summary of the literature produced by IASSW (2021) and other current social work publications related to the Covid-19 pandemic identified the application of technology to social work education (e.g., Wilkerson et al., 2020). Further studies are, however, necessary to examine how online education can be used effectively by a range of stakeholders in social work (Afrouz & Crisp, 2021; Kourgiantakis & Lee, 2020). Although a recent study by Papouli, Chatzifotiou, & Tsairidis (2020) found that social work students positively perceived the importance of using computers or smartphones to connect Internet applications in general, some were unable to connect to the Internet. Students with an inadequate Internet infrastructure were less satisfied with online learning than with face-to-face learning (e.g., Dinh & Nguyen, 2020). Therefore, the foci of concern should be not only a technical question but also an ethical issue of utilizing online initiatives that uphold social work values such as equality and human relationships (Smoyer, O'Brien, & Rodriguez-Keyes, 2020; Wallengren-Lych, Dominelli, & Cuadra, 2021)
A context of re-conceptualizing social work education under the new normal.
Given the discussion noted above, the authors would like to argue for using a pedagogy entitled flipped learning to ameliorate those physical and cultural constraints of on-site education. This would foster a paradigm shift for an ethical, social work education despite the resurgence of Covid-19 and its variants. According to a review of the literature in higher education (Brewer and Lightheartedness, 2018), the features of flipped learning highlight that a flexible learning environment should be established for learners because they have the autonomy to determine their study schedule. A learner-centred culture for self-study could hence be promoted to maximize the utility of this learning approach. With this understanding, both synchronous/concurrent (e.g., uses of specific software/application for real-time teaching online) and asynchronous/nonparallel (e.g., uses of video) teaching arrangements might even be strategically combined for teaching fully online plus facilitating an accomplishment of independent learning (Young et al., 2014). As a result, flipped learning should be a pedagogy able to foster a breakthrough in our total reliance on on-site activities, including the fieldwork practicum. It inspires a rethinking of any possibility for creating an emancipatory environment to provide quality education -- no matter whether online and/or face-to-face. In other words, social work education delivered online and/or in a classroom is not crucial; the crucial issue is always how the students could be supported and motivated to achieve a better education via the uses of online and/or classroom initiatives without temporal and spatial boundaries. As the Covid-19 is likely to last for an extended period (Kissler et al., 2020), it is important to consider how we can utilize flipped learning to sustain the quality of social work education under the 'new normal'.
In the semester completed in May 2020, the authors adopted flipped learning for teaching social work courses to more than 50 undergraduates studying at a university in Zhuhai (a South China city connected with Hong Kong and Macau by land). The subjects the authors co-taught included social policy (n=30) and fieldwork education (n=24). By referring to the heuristic approach in social work research (Cheung, 2016), their reflections on the experiences could be summarized as follows:
Online teaching has to be empathetic to and respectful of students. Like most teachers at the beginning phase of the pandemic, the authors synchronously delivered their lectures online via computer software and mobile application (e.g., Zoom). However, they found that most of the students did not like to show their faces. It was surprising for the authors that the reasons behind this behaviour consisted of messy rooms that required cleaning and having to prepare meals behind the screen. The students shared that they were much busier while studying at home. Unlike the situation on campus, they could not just concentrate on studying according to a fixed schedule. Some of the students even disclosed that they had to be multitasking -- conducting housework while using a headset to listen to online classes.
Strategic uses of video are critical. To facilitate student learning, the authors recorded most of the lectures via Zoom in advance. They were, therefore, able to watch those videos 7x24 anytime and as often as they desired. Instead of directly explaining related ideas and examples, the videos intentionally set numerous scenarios and posed many relevant questions. This arrangement could stimulate a reflection of the students on what they had learned from the course materials. The students could also try to solve the conceptual and real-world puzzles provided by themselves.
The authors also requested the students to conduct their group presentations by video (See Picture 1). Similar to what the instructor did, the students generally used Zoom to produce their videos. Some of them made use of smartphone applications for their production. Their completed work was uploaded to either the official server of the course or a video-sharing platform familiar to them (e.g., Tik Tok). Access passwords were also provided only to the instructors and other classmates.
The use of social media can foster an efficient and dynamic discussion (See Picture 2). WeChat was performing a hub role in teaching and learning throughout the process. All the students enrolled in the social policy course were divided into eight small groups, with each group consisting of three to four members. As with traditional tutorials, the students were required to engage in online discussions with their responsible instructor via WeChat. Apart from answering the reflective questions set in the videos, the students had the opportunity to clarify their conceptual understanding of topics dealt with in the videos. Because of the low bandwidth required, the authors and different groups could freely communicate with one another. Furthermore, based on the authors' teaching experiences, few Chinese students would actively clarify their learning puzzles. Interestingly, particularly for the students of the social policy course, it could become quite natural and usual for this to occur online.
Regarding the presentation videos, all the students were also allowed to share their opinions via WeChat. The course instructor further developed some reflective questions based on the students' feedback on the presentation videos. Then, all of them could launch the next round of discussion.
To 'flip' fieldwork education is challenging. By comparing the teaching and learning evaluation findings of two courses with the average scores of the university, the course of social policy attained positive results but negative for that of fieldwork. The authors would try to explain the difference as follows: First, the online initiatives were ad-hoc arrangements for continuing fieldwork despite the impact of the outbreak of Covid-19. The students had already completed more than two-thirds (almost 300 hours on average) of their practice in the field; they had no choice but to fulfil their remaining fieldwork hours online. Second, not all fieldwork educators were ready to adjust their work. The authors tried their best to prepare the course aforementioned. However, almost all of the fieldwork supervisors had no training for working online previously. They could only conduct their teaching just like a typical lecture via Zoom. Third, the online arrangements could not fully reclaim the meanings and values of fieldwork. Based on the qualitative evaluation findings, some students regretted that they could not say 'good-bye' to the service users in person. They could only terminate the professional relationship with their colleagues and service users via phone call or WeChat.
Discussion on the conditions of a paradigm shift and its proposed mechanism
In social work, Skerrett (2010) proposed that a paradigm shift is to change the knowledge already shared, update professional values through reflective co-creational processes, and proactively face a significant change in the environment. Based on the lessons learned above, the paradigm shift would be possible if both technical and ethical issues were simultaneously managed. According to a model chiefly proposed by the first author (Leung & Shek, 2018) based on empirical findings, the paradigm shift mainly involves cultivating a co-creation process among primary stakeholders, who have the interests and power for decision making. They are required to negotiate and scrutinize different stances and viewpoints, as well as continuously reflect on their practices in the process. By doing so, a systemic change could be ultimately achieved (See Figure 3).
Individuals can find efforts that promote teaching and learning social work online (e.g., Afrouz & Crisp, 2021). On-site education is still the widely adopted arrangement in those less developed regions of the profession on the Chinese Mainland. Nevertheless, the authors observed a glimmer of light to innovate and initiate a paradigm shift in social work pedagogy under the 'new normal'. As educators, we ought to embrace the opportunity to be creative in working with our students for even better learning and teaching quality in terms of accessibility, interaction, and effectiveness. The authors thus recommend further studies to verify and advance the lessons learned in our example. They hope that the outlook for social work education will continue to shine with a paradigm shift.
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Brewer, R., and Movahedazarhouligh, S. (2018) 'Successful stories and conflicts: A literature review on the effectiveness of flipped learning in higher education‘, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 34(4), 409-416.
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