Interview with Dr. Melanie Sage on Social Media in Social Work and Social Work Education

About Dr. Melanie Sage, Ph.D., LICSW: Dr. Sage holds a BSW from University of North Carolina Pembroke, and an MSW from East Carolina University (2002). Her PhD in Social Work & Research is from Portland State (2010). She has been an Assistant Professor at the University of North Dakota since 2011, and is currently the director of the BSSW program, which has about 200 students at any given time.

Dr. Sage teaches classes in both the BSSW program (on-campus) and MSW program (on-campus and online). She typically teaches the Practice with Individuals and Families class in the BSSW program, and the Advanced Standing Course in the MSW program. This Spring she is launching a Motivational Interviewing elective, and is also collaborating with others to work through the university approval process to propose an innovative online BSSW program. Dr. Melanie Sage was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] Can you please elaborate on your professional and research experiences in social work?

[Dr. Sage] I was a IV-E child welfare scholar during my MSW program–it is a training program and stipend for aspiring child welfare workers. Once I got out into the child welfare field and got a few years under my belt in various capacities, I was frustrated by system issues that impacted a worker’s ability to really serve kids and families. I decided to go back to school for my PhD to explore these issues. Does that make me a macro worker? Not really–I wanted to explore macro work because the micro work was so important to me and I knew it’d take macro-level interventions to allow workers on the ground to really serve families. They are so intertwined. I refuse the micro/macro divide. I’ve done some of my most important policy work while I worked in direct practice in the child welfare field. Much of my current service and research work is related to helping agencies improve practice through education and evaluation.

I love clinical work, and am passionate about teaching students good skills for working with individuals and families. I really like motivational interviewing and narrative therapy. I love system-change work, especially helping agencies understand and use evidence-based practices, or conducting program evaluations that help adjust work to better meet client needs. I hold a LICSW (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Work) license, and had my own clinical practice briefly when I lived in Oregon. I worked in direct practice during the five years that I was earning my PhD: as a child welfare worker, psychiatric social worker, suicide hotline responder, and in clinical practice. I also held trainer, graduate research assistant, and graduate teaching positions.

My research is generally in child welfare program evaluation. I am just ending the 3-year evaluation of a 1.5 million dollar Family Group Decision Making grant, where I explored outcomes of FGDM with Native American families. I also have a 3-year state contract to audit all Indian Child Welfare Act cases in our state to assess compliance and help the courts improve federal compliance. Our department was recently granted competitive National Child Welfare Workforce Institute funding–we are using these funds to train students to fill important child welfare positions in our rural oil-impacted communities, and also to conduct system change work–I am assisting on this project. I lead another grant where we are exploring the use of faith-based foster parent recruitment in rural communities. I’ve just started work on a small Photovoice project that I’m excited about–we are using this technique to understand the experiences of students who are Native American on our campus after a recent university shift from an Indian school logo, a decision met with a broad mix of support and opposition. We are working collaboratively with students most affected by the debate so that their voices are heard by the university community. As you can see, I have my hands in many things.

I never thought I would like research. I was never drawn to methods, theory, statistical analysis–all of those boring things that people think about when we say “research.” When I realized that the PhD was about those things I almost backed out. Then I just reasoned I’d go to a teaching school where they wouldn’t really make me do research. Somewhere along the way I became a convert. It’s because I love answering questions, knowing how things work, figuring out how to make the world a better place. Research helps us get there. And I can really get behind using tools that will allow us to improve our work.

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

[Dr. Sage] It is so difficult to even create a dividing line anymore between internet and education, they are so entwined- it’s hard to imagine a time that they’ve ever been separate. Students rarely step foot into a library anymore. When you pick up a book or a journal from a shelf, it’s fairly easy to discern where your info originates. But internet sources muddy the waters, and in some ways, students must learn to become much more careful consumers of information. There is so MUCH information, and it is so easy to access. My expectations are much higher given the availability of information; for instance, pre-internet I’d not expect a student to cite a report from a National Center on their topic, but post-internet I expect these types of sources.

Social media has impacted our work too… in many different ways. I was a late adopter to Twitter, and have made many fun connections there- the pool of academics is small enough that there’s more cross-disciplinary networking than is typical in other online academic-centered groups. On Google+ we’ve formed a neat community of people interested in Social Work and Technology, and several of us have published together, presented at conferences, and proposed projects based on our discussions in that group. I’ve learned about new tools and how others are using them. So social media has informed my teaching, research, and professional networking in positive ways.

For our students, the question is more complicated. Social media has changed the way they interact with each other in positive ways, and they can also do more networking- in some of the same ways I have mentioned above. Many of our students have grown up with social media, so we assume as digital natives that they will naturally be able to transition from personal to professional use, but this is not always the case. They use professional training to adopt a professional voice, and professional training is largely our role as teachers. Because we know they will use case notes when they go out in the field, generally we teach students how to write a case note using a professional voice. Similarly, they use social media and technology in the field- we need to help them prepare for this.

Social media has raised many ethical questions, some of which we haven’t decided (as a field) how we want to answer. Academics have different levels of relationships with students, and practitioners with clients, and always have; but social media makes them more overt. (Are you “friends” with students? What does it mean if another faculty member is and you are not? Are students/practitioners “friends” with clients? How about parents of clients, foster parents of clients?) These are not new questions, but they’re amplified questions because of social media. So we need contextual conversations about these issues with each other and with our students.

[] At the CSWE Annual Program Meeting (2014), you presented data on your research study entitled: Use of Social Media in Direct Practice: Implications for Training and Policy. Why do you think so few agencies and MSW programs are training students on proper use of social media in social work practice?

[Dr. Sage] I conduct ethics trainings across our state on the use of social media in practice, and have trained over 1,000 people on this topic. There is a funny experience I have: when I talk to administrators, they almost always tell me that their workers do not use social media at work and that their workers would never search for clients. Caseworkers tell me a very different story- using social media and the internet as a tool is a natural way to gather information, and easily extends into their work lives. So I think part of the reason is this divide–that people within the agency are not talking about whether it’s ok, they just do it. Workers see each other do it. There’s ambiguous space for many of them about whether it’s ok to do it (they told us this during our research), but they do it… to make assessment decisions, to screen, or even just out of curiosity. Many of them (about a third in our study) report that social media has created an ethical concern.

I think another barrier is that sometimes we are reactive instead of proactive to policies issues in the field. A policy may not come about until there’s a real problem. At that point, the policy is often written punitively, and it’s easy to lose sight of the question that should guide social media policy–how can we use technology to best serve our clients and communities, and in a way that fits with our agency’s mission, values, and professional ethics?

[] Which social media platforms are you currently using in your classes (Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook…) and how are you using those platforms? Do you think that teaching students about the different forms of social media in class better prepares them for the ethical concerns that each of the different social media platforms raises in social work practice?

Although I enjoy personal use of many of these platforms, I rarely use them in class. Any use of technology (or other media!) should be driven by how to best serve students, and in my current coursework I’ve had few moments where I’ve thought that one of these tools would be the best way to help students learn practice skills. We do discuss case scenarios in class related to ethical use of social media tools such as Facebook. I show students my own Twitter account in class, talk to them about how I use it to connect, to share a professional voice, and I use examples in class of good and questionable social media use. Social media platforms have different purposes and flavors and we discuss that. For instance, when I taught field seminar, I talked about the use of LinkedIn for networking and job search.

I tried Pinterest last semester as an extra credit assignment in my practice course–I had students pin articles and practice activities related to specific intervention models such as CBT and Motivational Interviewing –but the group boards were a bit clunky and I am not in love with the activity. In my children’s mental health class, I had students record a brief intervention technique to YouTube and I posted all the videos to a blog. This created a nice video library of brief intervention techniques that other students could use–and the library builds every time I teach the course. Students learned technology skills that are applicable to practice, thought about presentation, and had to demonstrate use of evidence-informed practice. Both these activities offered opportunities to discuss use of real name versus pseudonym, to discuss development of professional online identity.

I’ve seen colleagues at other schools craft nice policy assignments related to engaging politicians and other stakeholders on Twitter. I have some concerns related to compelling students to join a for-profit site that may use their personal information in questionable ways. Some students are opposed to using social media for good reasons, and we’re asking them to create a digital footprint that may be difficult to remove, depending on the platform. So the pros really have to outweigh the cons if we’re going to use these tools for assignments, and students need to be informed about the benefits and risks- which means we have to be informed. Facebook “privacy settings” is a good example of a confusing tool where we really have to be informed by paying attention and keep up-to-date. We may have our information private one minute, and then the rules change. It’s easy for some to decide they don’t want to bother with Facebook because of this. But according to Pew, over 70% of people are Facebook users in the US, and in my study about a third of social workers and students who’d completed field were using Facebook to search for clients. Even if we’re not looking for our clients, they’re looking for us, and it impacts our professional work, so it makes sense that it’s part of our professional training.

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

[Dr. Sage] As with any new assignment, let the need drive the decision to adopt. What are the learning objectives that are best met using the platform you’ve chosen? Before you use it in class, use the platform yourself so you can anticipate the struggles. Network with other professors about their experiences, and look at scholarly research and articles–there is quite a bit of advice and research about using social media in college classrooms.

Consider social media education outside of social media use. For instance, have students write a mock social media policy for a field setting, and use social media examples in the classroom, highlighting both the positive and negative uses. Have them write a real social media policy for the classroom. (I borrowed the later idea from an APM thinktank I co-facilitated with Jonathan Singer, Karen Zgoda, and Jimmy Young last year: I had students use a formal consensus process to write our class technology policy on the first day of class. They told each other their concerns related to technology distraction in the classroom, but in their policy they agreed that laptops in class were acceptable and they held each other accountable for appropriate use. Most would have probably preferred that I made the rule, but this shifted ownership.)

APM has a growing number of sessions about use of social media. At the upcoming APM in Florida, I am helping to facilitate a social media skills lab (with Jonathan Singer and Jimmy Young). I am also on a panel about how to engage distance students via technology (with Jimmy Young, Andrew Quinn, Dale Fitch), and presenting a poster (with Todd Sage) about child welfare workers’ use of social media in practice. Come say hi, or tweet me @melaniesage!

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

Last updated: April 2020