Social Work Practice Educators Briefing
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1 April 2015
My role was to organise and co-facilitate the briefing
The briefing is an annual event in the calendar of the OU’s social work programme in the south west of England. The event takes place in a hotel, we use one large conference room for the main event plus bar areas for coffee/lunch. The key actors are social work staff members who give presentations focused on the practice learning element of the OU’s BA Hons Social Work. The degree has 170 days where students are on placement and their developing professional social work practice is assessed. The assessment is principally undertaken by qualified social workers who have undergone further training to become ‘Practice Educators’.
The event also serves to showcase the OU’s work face to face in the context of the degree being offered through a distance learning route. The event attracts about 40 participants.
The principal aim is to inform practice educators about how to work with, and assess, Open University social work students undertaking work placements.
It is difficult to identify measures of success but possibilities are
# positively completed event evaluation forms
# anecdotal positive comments from participants during and at the end of the day
# low number of post event queries from participants about topics/issues covered at the briefing
# high level of students successfully completing their placements.
The event was designed to convey information about the OU’s social work programme, to help participants to understand the philosophy and method by which practice learning is assessed in the OU, and to promote a shared learning amongst the participants (many of whom are very experienced in their roles).
The day was split into several sessions
· Welcome and introductions
· The OU social work programme: supporting practice learning
· Assessment of practice learning: using the Professional Capabilities Framework
· Students’ reflective writing: how to interpret and assess
· Practice learning and peer support: how students can support each other
The expected outcomes of the sessions included
- a raised awareness for participants of the nature of distance learning and the pressures for learners of undertaking professional study while sponsored by their employer,
- Greater familiarity for participants with the OU’s processes for assessing practice learning
- Greater familiarity with the professions standards for professional practice (The Professional Capabilities Framework)
- Reflection by participants on the central role of reflection and reflective writing in social work practice learning assessment
- Consideration of how peer supports might be an effective way of students developing resilience in them to complete their studies.
The briefing went well but it is interesting to reflect on the challenges of coordinating a group of staff to facilitate the day when, as a staff group, we rarely meet. I had particular expectations of how colleagues would facilitate sessions but at times the way the sessions were facilitate was very different to how I would have done it. This has let me to think about how as educational practitioners we all have different strengths and styles.
Equally the role of participants was interesting. With forty participants at the event they all brought different qualities and skills which in turn influence the development of the ‘tone’ of the day. People were broadly receptive to the structure and content of the day but there was a sense to all facilitators that participants wanted greater clarity and certainty than we could provide on some topics. So, for example, practice learning assessment – even with criteria and guidance – is essentially a subjective judgement. Therefore it is very difficult to set out what ‘the standard’ is, or what ‘the right answer is’ or ‘the right level’.
When I discussed how this subjectivity gave permission for practice educators to use their professional judgement and autonomy it seemed to back fire and be interpreted as a lack of clarity or certainty from the University about what constituted a ‘good enough’ standard of work!
So, a key reflection from the event – to contribute to the development of future briefings – is how to enable participants to recognise their own skills and autonomy to make assessments, to believe that the University will respect their judgements, and to learn how to cope with the anxiety that a lack of certainty/objectivity, inherent in practice learning, creates.