The New Achievement Gap


Last night while watching the political debate, I was struck by how Mitt Romney tried to reassure the nation that his Medicare plan would not affect current retirees.  This is not an anti-Romney, or even political post, because I have heard other politicians, both Democratic and Republican, often use this reassurance when pitching a policy.  This won’t effect you, they say, only future generations.

Only future generations?  Is it possible that people really care that little about people outside our own little 80-year life span bubble?

Actually this post is going to be about education, how proud I am of my students, and how worried I am about the social work and mental health professions.

This year, Boston College made a step into the future of social work when they allowed me to propose and teach the first graduate social work class on Social Work Practice and Technology.  It was a leap of faith for the faculty and administration, and one not lost on me.  A few weeks into the class I bumped into a colleague who sat on the committee to approve the course.  She asked how the class is going, and when I updated her she said, “honestly, when we were reading your syllabus we didn’t understand half of what you were talking about, but I said ‘let Langlois teach it, if anyone can do it he can.'”

Very flattering, but more importantly an example of a social work program taking a leap of faith into educating 21st century social workers.  Are you paying attention, Deans of other social work schools?

But although I am proud of BC and myself for this, I’m even more proud of the students and how they are doing in our class!  They’re starting blogs and commenting on each others, researching and test driving smartphone Apps for possible clinical benefit, and venturing into a class which will be conducted today in World of Warcraft.  In our discussions they are raising thoughtful comments and challenging my technophilia as much as their technophobia.

At the same time, I am being reminded of the mistake older clinicians often make when we assume that all “young people” know how to use technology.  This is an impossibly blanket and uniform statement to make about the diverse group of social work students today.  Many grad students have avoided smartphones, dislike Twitter, and think of blogging as solo and literary rather than multimedia and interactive.  But the speed at which they are learning and innovating is impressive!

So here is the new Achievement Gap, or Achievement Gaps as I see them:

1. The Gap between current students and continuing education.

This class was filled up on its first run, which contrasts sharply with workshops I often try to do with colleagues for professional development. Too many older clinicians are thinking they can still “opt out” of learning about things like social media, video games, and internet technologies.  They’re the Romneys of the social work world, reassuring themselves that technology changes will not effect their business or the quality of the work they do.  And perhaps just as bad, they are leaving it to the younger generation to learn on their own.

This achievement gap is troubling for many reasons, which brings me to:

2. The Gap between knowing how to use technology technically and how to use it clinically and ethically.

Even if we were to overlook the ageism in the assumption that “young folks know all about the new technologies,” it simply is not true.  Young people, and technology itself, are too diverse for that.  Not all grad students have had the same access to technology, the same aptitude or interest, or time to keep up with the proliferation of new technologies.  And even if they did, there is a vast difference between knowing how to use Twitter mechanically and how (or if) to use it as a clinician.

For learning how to be a clinician our students have always looked to our faculty and supervisors for direction.  From what I have heard over the past several years, the response students get to technology-related questions is usually dismissal or fear.  This is reflected in our profession’s consistent focus on technology as an ethical issue rather than as a modality for treatment.  Technology workshops pay lip service to how technology can provide us with new and exciting innovations, but then skip over how to actually do that and focus on the ethical concerns.  Our profession has bought into the moral panic around the internet by making it into solely an ethical topic almost all the time.

In the search of graduate school curricula, I found only one course on the graduate level that addressed technology, perhaps not surprisingly at UT Austin.  The focus however was much more on IT for informatics and case management than clincial social work.

According to the Council for Social Work Education‘s latest report, there are over 213 MSW programs in the US.  Of those reporting information, the indication is that 85,290 full-time and 26,129 part-time social work students are enrolled currently.  That’s 111,419 students.  Of these students, 20 will graduate this year with advanced clinical training on utilizing online technologies and social media.

That’s an Achievement Gap.  That’s scary.

Look, no one is saying that grad schools and agencies, faculty and supervisors, are in an easy position.  We are being called on to teach future professionals knowledge that we often don’t have a sufficient grasp on ourselves.  But that’s a call to action, not a call to resigning that knowledge to be the responsibility of some future generation, or worse the students who pay us thousands of dollars to prepare them for social work in the 21st Century.  This is an epic fail, and one I hope graduate schools remedy quickly.

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