Supporting the future workforce

For the past two years, Iriss has supported students of social work at two universities to embed the use of social media in their practice. While we know it can support education – provide them with a whole new world of information and networks – it is the support it provides in the transition from university to professional practice that we’re really interested in. We believe that the earlier these skills, as well as a culture of experiential learning can be fostered in individuals, the more they can bring to their professional roles.

We’ve been working with the University of Strathclyde and University of Dundee to provide online social media learning to their First Year and Masters’ students respectively. The two courses have just completed and both had a good level of engagement.

The course was run over six weeks and covered an introduction to Personal Learning Networks, Twitter, Diigo (a social bookmarking tool), Evernote ( note-taking tool) and Scoop It! ( a news aggregator). The final week is dedicated to personal reflection.

Each course module involve mixed media – video, audio and written texts – with weekly forums for discussion and questions. The mix of media was welcomed by the students and quite a number commented positively on audio – how they hadn’t thought of listening to material for learning before.

The majority of the students saw the benefits of Twitter  – it is probably the most social of the tools, providing easy ways to connect with people, and so really appealed. Some students preferred particular tools over others. It was interesting to see how some students embraced Diigo as a way to save and manage their favourite websites, while others just didn’t recognise its benefits, but really warmed to Evernote or Scoop It! As well as learning about social media, the main purpose of the course is to encourage exploration of the web and develop the individual’s confidence in self-directed learning; there’s no onus on the students to come away using all of the tools that they learn about.

Here are comments from students who participated:

“The use of social media tools as we see nowadays has become important within education and workplace learning because it allows for sharing of ideas, information and knowledge, collaboration, engaging with communities.”

“As social media is often seen in a negative light…, it is helpful to highlight how the use of this can be something of great benefit to ourselves and others.”

“I think social learning can be beneficial in today’s workplace where there is multi-agency working as it is an easier and less time-consuming way of sharing information and learning from other professionals from different organisations and locations.”

“Hart’s podcast has inspired me to use my Twitter account to follow and read more about social work, hopefully learning and challenging myself along the way.”

“I had previously believed that social media was mainly used for personal use and had never believed it had its benefits relating to our own personal learning, development or had information relating to our current practice.”

If you want to try out social media for yourself, sign-up to our 6-week ‘Grow your personal learning network’ course.

Continuing to grow personal learning networks

On 8 September 2017, we’ll launch a ‘Grow Your Personal Learning Network’ online course for social services staff. This is a course that will be open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the web and social media to support them build personal and professional networks and promote lifelong learning. Given this imminent launch, we thought it timely to share the work we did last year around growing personal learning networks.

personal learning networks animation


Over 2016/17, in partnership with both the University of Strathclyde and University of Dundee, we piloted a ‘Grow your personal learning network’ online course. The six-week course aimed to support two cohorts of students of social work – first year and Masters’ students – to use the web and social media to improve use of, and sharing of information and knowledge and to build their own connections, both personal and professional. It also aspired to promote lifelong learning and to support learning in the transition from education to practice.

The idea for running such a course was originally pitched to the Heads of Social Work group, which prompted interest from the University of Strathclyde and the University of Dundee. There was recognition from both of the potential value of social media for improving students’ access to information for education and practice, and for creating their own local, as well as wider networks.

This summary report is based on a follow-up review session with course leads at both universities, as well as feedback from students posted to the online forum of each respective course.


Personal Learning Networks is different to traditional learning and offers to following benefits to support improved use of evidence:

  • Autonomous and self-directed, with learner controlling how, when and ‘who’ they connect with.
  • Learning is social and adaptable to individuals needs rather than static / prescriptive course content.
  • Continuous part of individuals work flow and not an onerous add on.
  • Bite-sized.
  • Inclusive, supporting connections across sector, professional and non-professional boundaries and hierarchies as well as inclusive of traditional research reports, practitioner wisdom, lived experience and co-creation of new knowledge through interaction.

The learning from the two pilots would be shared to support effective use of evidence and knowledge and will also link into strategic conversations, including the review of Social Work Education and Improving Use of Evidence strand in the Social Services Strategy 2015-20.


The online courses were set-up on Iriss’ WordPress platform using CoursePress Pro. This provided a closed online learning forum for each cohort.

Every week a set of activities were released, together with tips and tools and links to videos and external readings and resources. Each week focused on a different tool or topic. These included:

  • Understanding Personal Learning Networks
  • Twitter
  • Diigo social bookmarking
  • Evernote
  • Scoop It!
  • Personal reflection

The programme for the two cohorts was slightly different, tailored and agreed with course leads. For example, University of Dundee requested that a module on Evernote be included, whereas, the University of Strathclyde covered Twitter over two weeks.

Activities for each week included engaging with a range of multimedia: written texts, videos, and audio content. It was expected that students would engage with each other using social media they were learning about, such as Twitter and Diigo, as part of the course, and share reflections in the closed online forums as part of the tasks set.

The online format supported a self-directed learning approach, which included time management and prioritising in workflow. It offered each cohort of students an online forum where they could post their thoughts and reflections on each week’s tasks, and support each other. The facilitators also offered comment and encouragement. Arguably, this provides a cost-effective way to provide learning; costs were only incurred for the WordPress installation and update. Facilitation, is ‘extra’ in terms of resourcing this.

The courses were facilitated (online) by an Iriss team member and the university course lead. Facilitators encouraged participation and provided comment where appropriate. The students largely led the discussions, responding to, and commenting on, questions posed as part of the tasks.

By way of introduction to the course, the Iriss team provided a one-hour, face-to-face introductory session to both cohorts.


The courses did not form part of the curriculum at either university and were not formally assessed. On providing evidence of learning and participation in the course, open badges were issued by Iriss in partnership with Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).

Application for open badges was promoted by the course facilitators and was designed to encourage them to think about CPD and post-registration accreditation of learning, as required by qualified and practising social workers.


The course was introduced as part of the ‘Preparing for lifelong learning’ module, which was also six weeks long. This took place during the first weeks of class time in Year 1 of the social work programme, with students on campus. 34 out of 35-student class registered for the course.

The PLN course was pitched by the course lead as a way for students, new to university, to take up new tools that would help them in their current studies. It was also promoted as something that would help them as they moved into practice in several years time.

Participation was generally good with approximately 15 students participating throughout the six weeks. Only through comment and / or completion of tasks could we measure the level of participation. It’s possible that a number of those who didn’t post comments or complete tasks (but took a more observatory or ‘lurker’ approach), did actually read material, watch videos etc and got some learning from it.

Approximately 11 students participated in the Twitter discussion in the second week. A Storify report of the discussion is available:

13 students applied for a SSSC open badge at the end of the programme to receive acknowledgement of completion.

Overall the course was well received and feedback was largely positive from students. Regular contact/encouragement from Graham (course lead) was considered to have been helpful in promoting engagement – through weekly face-to-face as well as online contact. It was deemed useful ‘to be directive’, encourage the students and ‘check in.’

Feedback from students:

“People do not need to wait to get taught, and control over learning transfers to individuals”

“I can guarantee that without this gentle push into the social media world I would not have considered it…. This will be invaluable for my further development and education in the years to come as a social work student.”

Student plans to continue using social media to support learning:

  • Build in social media/tools to workflow as a habit
  • Use in fallow periods eg travel time
  • Reflection – consolidate/learn from mistakes/put new ideas into action
  • Identify who/what to read/follow
  • Organise/bookmark useful web links
  • Be proactive online in seeking/asking for help
  • Speak to classmates for recommendations about what’s good online
  • Set up own groups to share ideas and ask questions on topics we are unsure about.


The course was introduced as part of the ‘Leading for change’ module. This was during the second term and final year of the two-year social work Masters programme. It was launched with an introductory face-to-face session, just before students went out on placement. As such, students had no other class contact time during the six weeks of the course. 27 students registered for the PLN course.

The PLN course was also open to Educational Psychology students should they wish to engage. This was with a view to promoting cross-sectoral learning, however, only one Ed. Psych. student engaged.

The course leader (Shona) was keen to use the PLN course to encourage students to take more of a lead in their own learning. This was about encouraging them to make their own connections across professional and sectoral boundaries, and beyond prescribed university course outlines as core values in lifelong learning to be taken into practice.

Unfortunately, participation was generally low, with three or four students actively contributing week to week.

In contrast to University of Strathclyde only one student got involved in the Twitter discussion; only one applied for a SSSC open badge.

Feedback from students:

“This course provided a simple, yet clear overview of some of the apps and tools available to people to help support their learning and manage information.”

“I was encouraged to set up a Twitter account and it has proved invaluable this week as I was unable to attend a national Visible Learning conference with John Hattie on Monday, but could keep up to date with all the latest information and research through people tweeting.”

“Didn’t make me consider my own role as a leader in practice.”


For participating students:

  • Encourages not just good or best practice, but also ‘next’ practice
  • Encourages continuous learning
  • Alternative viewpoints to your own/can challenge you to think more critically
  • Provides helpful tips (eg through blogs or articles or groups sharing experiences/advice)
  • Improves digital literacy
  • Links with need for CPD throughout career and SSSC requirements
  • Encourages and supports peer support
  • Builds network of people/organisations to share with and learn from
  • Helped them to overcome ‘bad name’ /stigma that social media sometimes gets by showing it usefulness when used ‘correctly’

For facilitators (Iriss and university leads):

  • It worked best to run the course over class time, where university lead could check-in face-to-face with students, address any issues, and encourage participation.
  • The optional nature of course meant that other pieces of work which were accredited got priority, especially when faced with the demands of placements.
  • Facilitation is a not a huge pull on time and generally involves prompting with questions, and providing own insights and comments each week. Allocating time to this was supportive to students and the facilitators themselves.
  • Format and content of workshops was well received – participating students commented that the video tutorials were helpful in understanding how the tools could be used.
  • Cost-effective way to provide learning – the course was built on an already existing WordPress installation.