Students Discover Online Social Work May Virtually Be the Future

Posted: July 1, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Many of us have gotten used to e-mail, web searches, and chat rooms on the Internet that allow us to connect to people from all over the world. We trust our online banking to work, and we order books and gifts through web sites with little hassle. But the idea of “visiting” a doctor or a social worker online—a professional who may be located across the country from us—is still something most people are uneasy with, even though in the future that just might be the most efficient way to get an assessment or diagnosis.

Department of Social Work students in one section of the Human Behavior course taught last spring by Assistant Professor Catherine Tompkins learned how to make this virtual consultation a little more comfortable by working as part of a health care team with students from Western Michigan University (WMU). The software that was used allowed students to communicate with each other and transfer large “chunks” of information with ease. Using a new computer teaching tool called Virtual AGE, developed by Donna Weinreich, WMU, Mason students practiced assessing and developing a care plan for clients with whom they were never able to have face-to-face contact. The students were divided into six interdisciplinary teams of four—about two students from each university—and were given a virtual client, role-played by faculty and administration at both universities. The goal was to develop a case study on the client.

Virtual AGE, which stands for Active Gerontology Education in a Virtual Environment, was funded by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tompkins and Molly Davis, associate professor of social work, became involved in the last year of the three-year project, headed by Weinreich, an assistant professor and director of the Gerontology Program at WMU. Together, the researchers examined how well virtual teams, working in different geographic areas, could collaborate and analyze information without ever actually speaking or seeing their partners.

“It was frustrating at first for some of our students, who had the urge a lot of times to pick up the telephone when they had a question for a WMU student,” says Tompkins. “But that was part of the project. It worked out pretty well in the end, and was a great learning experience for everyone involved.”

Another project funded by the grant was a community development project organized by both sections of the Human Behavior class. In April, the students held a health career fair for residents of Chantilly Mews, a low-income housing development community in Chantilly, Va. They acquired donations and help from many local businesses and restaurants. For example, a local Dollar Store donated $100 worth of merchandise to hand out to kids who came to the fair, and prizes were given as an incentive for members of the community to participate in the health career fair. Participants included representatives from businesses, multiple allied health careers, the Mason nursing program, and law enforcement. The Career Fair was completely designed by social work students as a part of this project.

Tompkins says she hopes to use the distance education concepts in future clinical social work courses where students work on assessment skills on a more advanced level.

More information about Virtual AGE can be found on the project’s web site.

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