As lockdown enters its fourth month I have been reflecting on the Celebrating Rural Social Work conference (11.3.2020) and wondering, might this be a time of opportunity for rural social workers?
As rural social workers we have much in common and this includes our remoteness from one another. At the outset of planning the conference we were aware that this remoteness would prove itself to be a barrier to attendance, and so the idea of Celebrating Rural Social Work online was born. As the organiser of this aspect of the conference, I wanted to use the event to see how technology could allow us to connect to the conference, and in the fullness of time, establish and maintain a community of rural social workers who can engage, exchange and collaborate irrespective of our physical distance.
Moving from this vision of effortless connectedness to participation on the day proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Some connected easily, some with difficulty, and some, to our shared frustration, could not connect at all. Where it worked, the results were spectacular and hearing the voices of online delegates in Alaska and in North Carolina in a seminar provided evidence of the potential of technology to overcome physical distance and connect us, not just nationally, but globally.
Twelve days after the conference we entered national lockdown and were forced, as Gillian Ritch puts in in her blog, to take a ‘leap forward in our use of internet communications’. While we may now more than ever appreciate the importance of face-to-face contact with loved ones and service users, the last three months has also forced us into online communication.
As a university teacher, technology has allowed me to remain in contact with my students as a group when face-to-face has been impossible. What has emerged through the shared space of the now ubiquitous Microsoft Teams, has been an increase in shared responsibility for identifying learning opportunities and sharing of resources. Learning together online seems more inclusive, more democratic, more creative. Our small corner of rural Scotland, currently so disconnected locally, is suddenly connected globally. Our group has met online with rural social workers in Texas and attended national and international seminars. We look forward to attending the (online) International Federation of Social Workers three-day conference in July.
Video conferencing platforms have also been used to connect Justice Social Workers in Scotland and Probation Officers in France on a research project exploring personal, professional and organisational responses to lockdown. From a spare room in Dumfries and a kitchen in Reims, we have been connecting with the homes of justice social workers in villages, towns and cities across Scotland’s mainland and islands. We are learning that technology is now seen to offer an alternative to travelling to the office or to meetings – a means of achieving a better work/home balance, and as a way of connecting with others beyond our immediate location. Reassuringly, we have heard that in relation to technology and work with service users, our ethical foundation is holding firm. Online communication tools are only of value to us if they improve engagement, enable participation and improve outcomes for service users.
One of the good things to come out of several months of lockdown is that rural social workers have found a way to overcome our remoteness from one another. Technology, which we are all now familiar with, does seem to offer us a place to connect, exchange, and hold seminars so that we can learn from each other, from others working in the wider Scottish rural context, and from colleagues overseas. Is this a time of opportunity for rural social workers?