Tag Archives: new technologies

Social work scholars and personal learning networks


I recently decided not to apply for a certain academic position because of a policy banning the use of laptops in the classroom. Although I recognize that laptops in class can be problematic, I believe the answer is to move forward, not backwards. I don’t think I could work in an environment that is not open to discovering how new technologies can enhance the educational experience instead of hindering it.

The above video follows directly from my previous post, Nobody ever told me that I’m responsible for my own learning! It introduces the notion of the personal learning network (PLN) as applied to students.

What’s a PLN? I want to begin by talking about PLNs for social work scholars. To state the obvious:


Social work scholars are responsible for their own learning

Older social work scholars remember using card catalogues in the library to look up information. I have sat down at the computer with more than a few of these colleagues to help them understand how to access the new technologies for library research, because we are all now responsible for keeping up with an ever-increasing amount of information. Today, you cannot keep up with your field without using these electronic databases.

But there’s an even more dramatic shift happening right now, in 2009.

First, knowledge is becoming democratized. Anyone can start a blog and build a readership. Anyone can post a video on YouTube. Conversations are happening everywhere online — and they’re happening across all kinds of boundaries. It’s a very exciting time to be an academic.

The second trend is that the amount of information related to your field continues to multiply — it is not limited to traditional academic sources and it is constantly bubbling out in real time. Traditional sources cannot stay current enough. (See Gideon Burton‘s controversial post on traditional academic publishing in the digital era.)


Then how do I keep up? Help!

You need a personal learning network. It’s a way of engaging with the flow of information out there and filtering it so that you don’t get overwhelmed. A PLN helps you to keep current in your field by creating a network of people with whom you regularly exchange information and ideas. The best way to explain a PLN is by presentations like the one above, or the 15 minute video below.

<Click the link to view the video>

Building Your Own Personal Learning Network from Carl Anderson on Vimeo.

The idea of building one’s own PLN should be an exciting one for social work educators, because in our field, we are always drawing on our networks of resources, collaborators, and partners. Whether we are researchers or practitioners, we are experts at building networks.We have the skills already to build our personal learning networks… except for the technologies part. But that part can be learned, step by step.

(Actually, I’m no expert at this. I’m learning it from my colleagues in other disciplines — such as Alec Couros from the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina. )

People like me are going to be the ones to help our colleagues acquire proficiency in these new social media. (I know how computer-challenged some of you are. You don’t have to hide it from me.)

I want to become part of your PLN. Most of all, I want to see you get excited about how natural a fit these new technologies are with social work values. Social media are about relationships. They are about giving and sharing and contributing. They make your world bigger and at the same time friendlier than you thought it could be.



© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008.


Teaching with Youtube


Note: This article is also included in the Teaching Carnival (February 2009 edition).

Last year I discovered that Youtube can be a great teaching tool, especially with smaller classes.

I was teaching a field practicum seminar to social work students. By November, I realized that I had grossly over-estimated their core knowledge about social work. I dramatically cut back on the amount of information I was covering, prioritizing depth (integration of course content ) over breadth ( getting a wider range of information).

Four weeks of the course were devoted to models of community practice. The readings went into excruciating depth on each model – I knew this information would all run together for the students. So I reworked the learning goals, deciding that I wanted them to understand the characteristics of the three models, when to use them, and the basic strategies associated with each. That’s all.

In the overview class, I gave them a summary sheet of the three models. Then I showed one video for each model, with class discussion after each one.

The first video was showed a community development project:

The second video showed a social action initiative:

The third video documented a social planning project:

After each video, we discussed:

  • what model was it?
  • what characteristics of that model did they observe?
  • what strategies were used?

The first class was so successful in terms of student engagement, participation, and learning that I taught the remaining three classes the same way.  It allowed them to see what community practice actually looks like, rather than reading about it in a book. We also drew applications between the classroom material and the work of their field agencies. Students expressed how much they enjoyed this method of learning about community practice.

My selection of videos was based on a few parameters:

  • I tried to use Canadian examples as much as possible,
  • Most videos were 3 to 5 minutes (short)
  • I tried to find projects related to my students’ field settings (e.g., youth projects, food security, housing)
  • A diversity of projects were selected for each model, to avoid duplication of content.

It’s not always easy to get good videos to show in class from traditional sources such as the university library. YouTube provides a new kind of teaching resource that greatly expands our options!

What are some of the ways you have used new media and technologies in your teaching?

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

Blogging: A high risk activity?


Academic blogging remains a controversial and risky activity.

On the one hand, blogging has damaged some academic careers…

Many academic bloggers have been frightened off by Ivan Tribble’s warnings about blogging (Chronicle of Higher Education). Hiring committees tend to view blogging as a potential liability, says Tribble. He gives examples of people who lost academic positions because of their blogs.

This article scared me, too, but didn’t necessarily put me off blogging. What it did tell me was that if you blog under your own name, you need to recognize that what you write can affect your reputation as an academic. The bloggers cited by Tribble seemed to be naive or lacking of common sense about the importance of safeguarding their online identities.

The case of Juan Cole

What did scare me was learning that even highly relevant academic bloggers who blog in their areas of expertise can suffer career damage. One illustration is the case of Juan Cole. Cole is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. In 2002, he launched Informed Comment, a highly visible blog commenting on current issues related to the Middle East.

Cole gets quoted by the mainstream news media. He appears regularly in popular publications like Salon. And — love it or hate it — everyone who is anyone reads his blog. (Siva Vaidhyanathan)

Cole has done something no other scholar of the region has done since Bernard Lewis: “become a household word.” (The Chronicle Review)

Cole is the most respected voice on foreign policy on the left, and, as such, is a strong critic of the Bush administration. (The Hotline: National Journal’s Daily Briefing on Politics).

Cole’s blog Informed Comment also won the 2005 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism and was cited as “Best Expert Blog” in the 2003 Koufax Awards for leftist bloggers. Controversial, yes. Lacking professionalism, no.

So what happened to Cole?

After two departments recommended him for a tenured position at Yale University, a senior committee decided last month not to offer him the job after all. Although Yale has declined to explain its decision, numerous accounts in the news media have speculated that Cole’s appointment was shot down because of views he expressed on his blog. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Cole’s is not an isolated caseDaniel Drezner also failed to get tenure because of his foreign policy blog. (On the plus side, he did get expressions of interest from others who had heard of him through his blog and is now working at another university.)

…On the other hand, new media are the wave of the future.
I’m old enough to remember the days before electronic databases. Most of us rarely have to set foot in the library anymore to do our literature reviews. We can get most of it online.

Can I imagine going back to using those card catalogues in those many little drawers at the library? No.

In the same way, I can’t imagine turning back the clock on the emerging role of the new media with respect to any type of information and knowledge. It’s not going to happen. There are so many ways in which blogging and other new media can benefit the work of academics. Universities need to engage in conversations about what blogging means for academics, rather than trying to shut it down.

One reasons why academic blogging is discouraged is because it blurs the lines between “scientific” expert knowledge and other kinds of knowledge. Blogging does so by:

Ahhh. Now I see why blogging is so dangerous.

Without necessarily realizing it, we academic bloggers are engaging in a subversive activity, just by the act of blogging. Which brings me to…

The anti-oppressive academic blogger

I’m not in a good position to engage in activities that may be risky to my career, because in a few months, I’ll be a newly-minted PhD looking for an academic appointment. And to be honest, after reading about the dangers of academic blogging, I briefly considered playing it safe.

But hey! I’m a feminist. I’m an anti-oppressive social worker. My mission in life is to promote social justice and social change. If I wanted a safe, secure academic career, I would not be any of these things.

If I were to stop blogging (after barely starting) based on fear, I would be lacking in courage and integrity. Nothing is worth that price. I’d rather clean toilets for a living than undermine my integrity.

So damn the torpedoes.

I’m going to keep blogging. Any School of Social Work that I want to work in will see my blogging as an asset instead of a liability.

Links to articles used in this post

Attack of the career-killing blogs (Boynton, in Slate Magazine)
Do not fear the blog (Goetz, in the Chronicle)
Bloggers need not apply (Tribble, in the Chronicle)
They shoot messengers, don’t they? (Tribble, in the Chronicle)
Scholars who blog (Glenn, in the Chronicle)
Can blogging derail your career? (Chronicle; links to 7 articles on the topic)

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

New technologies for social workers


In my experience, social workers, community activists, and social work academics tend to be late adopters of new technologies.  Nor do social work educators seem to be teaching social work students about this important area of practice knowledge. Last year, I surveyed my class of third year social work students about their knowledge of social media and new technologies. I expected these young people to be quite internet savvy, but they were unable to answer most of the questions. (I concluded that I am a geek among social workers.)

According to new media guru  Seth Godin, online community organizer is one of the fastest growing jobs of the future (see his job board). And David Jones, the President of the International Federation of Social Workers, said:

There is no doubt that social networking websites are changing the way people relate to each. Social workers must keep up with these developments. The relationship between new technologies and social work practice will be one of the themes in the 2010 world conference in Hong Kong.

Why don’t you try taking my online survey to assess your own knowledge and use of new technologies?

Click Here to take survey

I invite you to post your comments below about this issue and the survey.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008