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Social work digitally transformed

The projects of Meret Reiser, research associate at the ZHAW Department of Social Work, show how the balancing act between digital and social can succeed. Based on a project supported by the ZHAW’s internal Digital Futures Fund (DFF), a successful collaboration with the School of Engineering was established. A brand new addition to the ZHAW portfolio is a continuing education course in which social workers can acquire digital skills.

Author: Johanna Seiwald

At first glance, technology and social work are opposing fields: While technical disciplines focus on objectivity, efficiency and optimization, social work is about supporting people as holistically as possible in their subjective, multi-layered needs and goals. However, the digital transformation has now been permeating many areas of life for several years and we are all affected by it, says Meret Reiser right at the beginning of the conversation. Digital developments also represent a cross-cutting issue in social work. They influence theory formation, practice as well as university education.

Social work digital?

Various studies shed light on the opportunities and challenges that are opening up for social work. Meret notes in her research that the Corona pandemic accelerated digital transformation, “Among other things, it showed that certain professional conversations can be conducted in a digital setting and offer benefits depending on the target groups. These include, for example, increased flexibility and efficiency, elimination of travel time or infrastructure. At the same time, ethical and organizational challenges also emerged, for example regarding data protection or infrastructure (see, among others, Eser Davolio et al, 2021).”

Digital competencies of social workers

Precisely because there are challenges, technology is sometimes viewed with suspicion in social work. Ermel and Stüwe note widespread “nonspecific skepticism about technology” as well as “low skills in technical matters” and a lack of cross-cutting competencies among professionals in educational and social work professions (2019, pp. 53-60). Meret recognizes these gaps and wants to encourage social workers to acquire digital skills and also have a voice in the development of new technical solutions. She is sure that co-design is essential to ensure that they meet the needs of the addressees and reflect their reality. Only in this way can the ethical and professional considerations and principles of social workers be incorporated into the technologies. The goal should be not to discriminate (even more) against marginalized groups or to depend on social and technical developments, but to shape digitization processes together with addressees, users and experts from different disciplines.