Interview with Dr. Laurel I. Hitchcock on Social Media in Social Work Education

About Dr. Laurel Iverson Hitchcock, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW, PIP: Dr. Hitchcock is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She completed her PhD in Social Work and MSW at the University of Alabama, and has a Masters in Public Health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is interested in social work education, technology and social media, social welfare history and public health social work. Her current work examines the role of social media literacies in professional social work practice. In 2012, she received the SAGE/CSWE Award for Innovative Teaching for her work incorporating social media into social work pedagogy. Dr. Laurel I. Hitchcock was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] How has the Internet and social media impacted social work education?

[Dr. Hitchcock] The internet and social media is a reality in higher education today, influencing students’ attention and how they learn. Research shows that most college students use some type of social media on a daily basis, for personal or “school related” purposes, and over half of them use social networks for “everyday life research.” Teaching students and practitioners when, why and how to use the internet and social media for professional practice is one of the big challenges for social work education in the next decade.

[] What recommendations do you have for professors who are not currently using social media in their classes, but would like to get started?

[Dr. Hitchcock] Social work educators interested in using social media in the classroom should start by learning why social and digital media literacy skills are essential for today’s social work student. Howard Rheingold identifies five core digital literacies in his book Netsmart: How to Thrive Online (attention, participation, collaboration, critical consumption of information, and network smarts) that provide a good framework for digital literacy in social work education and fit well with the Council on Social Work Education’s Core Competencies, the NASW Code of Ethics and other related practice standards for technology in social work. Rheingold’s book or works from other influential thinkers on digital literacies such as Cathy Davidson and Henry Jenkins are a good introduction to digital literacies for 21st century learners.

Second, educators should use social media for professional, not just personal reasons. We can learn a lot about social media by doing the same assignments that we expect students to complete, and serve as good role models along the way. Finally, social work educators should collaborate with other colleagues on campus who are interested in social media, promoting an interdisciplinary approach to their teaching and scholarship. These individuals might be located at the campus library or digital media labs or in departments of communication studies, computer sciences or other professional programs.

[] Which social media platforms are you currently using in your classes (Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook…) and how are you using those platforms?

[Dr. Hitchcock] Twitter: This micro-blogging platform is easy to learn and easy to incorporate into an assignment or as part of class participation. It is an effective tool for helping social work students learn and practice social media literacy skills such as information sharing, critical thinking and networking in a public forum. To use Twitter, students create a free account, write a brief public profile about themselves, and then they can start posting comments, questions and/or share links in 140 characters to less. Once students understand all the ways to use Twitter, I recommend using one or more of the following activities:

  1. Have students create a public list on a social problem, agencies in a geographic area or other relevant theme;
  2. Ask students to write weekly posts on specified topics, and also respond to each other’s posts;
  3. Encourage students to ask class-related questions via Twitter especially if you have a guest speaker or in-class activity; and/or
  4. Organize a live Twitter chat with another social work class at your University or another institution. For more information on Live Twitter Chats.

Podcasting: A podcast is a digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a portable media player, computer, or other device. Rather than writing a paper for an undergraduate macro practice course, I ask students to create a podcast about a local social service agency. This assignment helps students practice assessment and interviewing skills related to a human service organization while learning about technology tools and resources that will help them to be informed about social work practice.

I find that the students do the same type and amount of research as they would to write a paper and the audio files can easily be shared with the entire class. Because few of my students have experience in producing podcasts, I work with my university’s digital media lab to provide technical support and equipment for the assignment. I also recommend having students review an example podcast so they understand the important components of a podcast.

Google MapsGoogle Maps  is a free web-based mapping service that allows a user to design an online map for almost any reason. As part of a community assessment project, I have students create a map of local social service agencies in a city or county, noting the location of the agency and then developing a brief profile of the agency which includes address, phone number, services provided and hours of operation.

Students can also create a map about other topics or issues such as the identifying any food deserts in a community by mapping the location of grocery stores in a county or city. Along with their mapping application, Google offers a number of other applications such as Google+ which could be used to create virtual student groups or Google Docs which has a free spreadsheet program that students could use to run simple statistical analyses.

Along with developing social media-based assignments, I encourage instructors to weave questions about the use of social media in social work practice into classroom discussions.

While most social work students today are digital natives, it does not mean they understand the mechanisms, ethics and practice of how social media should or should not be used with colleagues, clients and agencies. In-class discussions can help students understand the larger context of social media in today’s society and in professional social work practice today.

Thank you Dr. Hitchcock for your time and insight into the role of social media in social work education. We definitely recommend following Dr. Hitchcock on Twitter @laurelhitchcock.

Last updated: April 2020