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.

Keeping safe on social media

The Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) has recently updated its social media guidance for the workforce, which provides advice for workers on using social media in a way that meets the SSSC Code of Practice. It sets a supportive context for use of social media, which is much welcomed, and it was encouraging to see Anna Fowlie, Chief Executive at SSSC, talk about her own experiences and champion the use of social media in professional practice. She said:

I’m a keen Twitter user and it can be a great way to share information, connect with people and promote what you do. I hope it gives workers the confidence to use social media appropriately and make the most of it to support their professional practice by connecting with a huge range of people and organisations.

At Iriss we have our own internal guidance on social media use, and on reading through SSSC and other guidance from Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), there are a number of tips that are universal to individuals and services.


  • Think before you post – this is the first thing we ask staff to consider at Iriss. If you react and respond without thinking it risks you saying something that you might later regret. Don’t respond in spur of the moment based on emotion (e.g. anger, excitement, anxiety etc). Stop and think.
  • Be aware of the public nature of social media and assume that anyone can read your post. You should avoid posting information or views that could reflect negatively on you, your employer or your profession.
  • Manage your privacy settings carefully and regularly – be aware of who can see your posts.
  • Maintain professional boundaries. Think carefully before accepting friend requests from people who use your service and don’t use social media to discuss confidential information about people and services.
  • Do not post inappropriate or offensive material. Use professional judgement in deciding whether to post or share something.
  • When in doubt, get advice from colleagues or other professional organisations.

Iriss actively promotes the use of social media in social services for learning and development purposes. We recognise that it can support the development of new knowledge, skills and professional networks. Fancy undertaking a short, six-week online course in the use of social media?

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.

Exploring your social work brand

I’m not sure how many people would agree that personal branding is important for social workers, not just entrepreneurs and Hollywood stars. Kristin Battista-Frazee argues that the same principles that entrepreneurs and celebrities use create an image are equally applicable to changing the way people view social work and create a better understanding of what it’s about (How Do YOU Stand Out? Exploring Your Social Work Brand).

In the coming months, The New Social Worker (a careers magazine associated with Cape Western Reserve University) will feature articles about how to create a social work brand by leveraging your values and training. This chimes to some extent with what Davies and Powell say about communicating research: we should borrow techniques from other disciplines, such as advertising.

It might not be for everyone but it wouldn’t do any harm to follow what Battista-Frazee has to say about how social media and personal branding can enhance your personal profile.

Social care evidence base

Social care may be the poor relation of healthcare with regard to research funding, but it’s something of a myth that it is not evidence-based, says Research in Practice Director Dez Holmes (How good is the social care sector at building an evidence base? Guardian Social Care Network, 7 July 2015).  Evidence, she notes, is more than just the results of randomised control trials: it comes in many forms, including practitioner experience and wisdom and user and carer perspectives, a point also acknowledged in Scotland’s Strategy and Action Plan for Embedding Knowledge in Practice in Scotland’s Social Services.

Getting evidence and knowledge into practice is another challenge which, according to Holmes, isn’t just a simple matter of giving everyone an Athens password to the journal literature. Former social worker Gerry Nosowska (in the same article) says that social workers need time and space to find, use and share research, and this requires an organisational culture that encourages and values reading, discussing and reflecting:

If keeping on top of research and using it to inform their practice is to become the norm … leaders and managers have a key role to play in creating the kind of environment that encourages research.

Innovative methods to present evidence may also encourage better uptake and use of knowledge.  A three-minute video is often more effective than wading through 60 pages of academic jargon. Here is an example we at IRISS produced to explain what person centred means in practice.

The 2015 Vision and Strategy for Social Services in Scotland acknowledges the need to improve use of evidence, highlighting

 …  the need to breakdown the traditional barriers between stakeholders and find ways to maximise the participation of service providers and ultimately the service users themselves in identifying research priorities. Ensuring collaborative practice in all stages of research and knowledge exchange is also key

In the 21st century collaborative practice and knowledge exchange rely to a large extent on digitally literacy because the web-based digital media offers so much potential for finding, sharing and reflecting (see previous post on Personal Learning Networks for example).  What do we mean by digital literacy? A good place to start is GO ON UK for a definition of basic digital skills:

  • Managing information
  • Communicating
  • Transacting
  • Problem Solving
  • Creating

Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter invites organisations to play their part in ensuring that everyone has the access, motivation and the basic digital skills required to pDigi-Partic-Charter-Signat-rgbarticipate  fully in the digital world. Signatories commit to:

  1. Ensuring their staff have an opportunity to learn basic digital skills
  2. Encouraging and supporting staff to help other people learn basic digital skills, and help other organisations to embrace digital tools.
  3. Contributing resources and practical support for digital participation initiatives.

People working in social care are no less able to acquire digital skills than the population as a whole. The same skills that will equip them to book holidays, shop and complete tax returns, will equip them to exploit the power of the web to find use and share knowledge.

All we need is the cultural change that will allow this to happen in the workplace. The 130 or so signatories to Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter have committed to do this.  It’s a start.

Canva – a simple design tool

(Post by Michelle Drumm, Media Manager at IRISS)

If you want to present information in a more creative, engaging and memorable way but have no design skills, Canva can help you. Canva is a really simple design tool that requires no experience or formal training in graphic design programs such as Photoshop or Indesign. It enables you to create posters, flyers, infographics, website graphics, invites and even presentations without any fuss, and in no time at all. And it’s free to use. Simply set-up an account and start creating designs.

Canva works on the premise of choosing a template or design (there are costs for some designs but there’s a wide variety of free ones available) and dragging and dropping it onto a blank canvas. Templates are sorted by category, for example, posters, cards and Facebook header images. When a template has been chosen you can choose a background colour of choice and even upload your own images to the design. There are also many text fonts and styles available.

In the search function there is a series of shapes, charts and graphs, illustrations and icons that can be used for data visualisation purposes. Canva is especially useful for presenting and reporting data more visually. An example might include the presentation of key facts and figures from a report as part of an executive summary. All created designs can be easily downloaded as PDFs or images and can also be exported for print production.

Not only is Canva easy to use, you’ll also have fun doing it!

Try out Canva.

Participation in the workplace: it does work

About 30 people from the public, private and third sectors along with some from academia and NGOs gathered at last week’s Digital Leaders Scotland Salon which looked at how to overcome the barriers to digital participation that face many groups in society and impede Scotland’s aspirations for a digital future.

What struck me was the presence again of that big elephant in the room.  When I asked how many participants were blocked from accessing the web at work there were far too many nods and wry grins of resignation. One participant had even been blocked from accessing the booking website for the event, which of course was for, err, digital leaders.

Why this should be such a problem really isn’t clear. As the DVLA points out:

This may seem obvious, but how can you pronounce yourself a digital organisation and then stop your staff from accessing YouTube or Twitter which we use to engage with our customers daily? – DVLA Digital Services Blog

Quite. The DVLA highlights the self evident truth that to be a digital organisation an organisation needs to, well, think digitally and build the capability of the workforce to support and deliver digital services. For the DVLA this meant opening up access to social media to all staff on their work computers. This is how you go about about building skills, confidence and competence.

Opening up web access, says the DVLA,  allows staff to find answers the questions they want answers to – not just the ones the employer thinks they might need answered.

What a welcome move away from the all too prevalent command and control culture. What’s holding back rest of the public sector?

Open access to research

‘what we propose implies cultural change: a fundamental shift in how research is published and disseminated’ – Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings

The UK Government has accepted the recommendation of the Working Group, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, that by 2014 publicly funded scientific research be freely available to all on publication, a move described by the Guardian as  ‘the most radical shakeup of academic publishing since the invention of the internet‘.

Currently academic publishers recoup their costs by charging subscription fees, borne mostly by academic libraries. Finch proposes that cost of publication be borne instead by the producers of research.  Under this scheme (referred to as the ‘Gold’ option), authors would pay article processing charges (APCs – expected to be around £2,000 per article) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online.

An alternative favoured by some academics – the so-called ‘green’ option – would allow researchers to make their papers freely available online after they have been accepted by journals. Of course this is likely to seriously, or fatally, damage the revenues of publishers, including Britain’s learned societies, who survive on journal subscriptions.

Which begs the question – should publishers and learned societies realistically expect to continue as before, with revenues simply transferring from subscriptions to APCs?  Such a simple transfer seems unlikely as the whole ecology of scholarly publishing and the dissemination of research is already changing. Before the internet, the costs of peer review and disseminating paper-based research publications were costly and complex, involving proofing, typesetting, printing, publishing and distribution. Sensibly this was outsourced to professional publishers (for more on this see Ross Mounce’s guest post on UK Web Focus: Open Access to Science for Everyone).

But the Web is a disruptive force which has undermined many established business models, including newspaper publishing, bookselling, banking and education. So far, the academic publishing business model has resisted change, the printed-based subscription model having been applied virtually unchanged to digital publishing. This looks unsustainable in a world where the social web offers so much variety in the way we find, use, share and rate information of all kinds. Indeed, when Tim Berners-Lee created the Web in 1991, it was with the aim of better facilitating scientific communication and the dissemination of scientific research (Why hasn’t scientific publishing been disrupted already?)

The transition will not be without pain and Finch recognises the tensions between the interests of key stakeholders:

  • Publishers, whether commercial or not-for-profit, wish to sustain high-quality services, and the revenues that enable them to do so.
  • Funders wish to secure maximum impact for the research they fund, plus value for money.
  • Universities wish to maximise their research income and performance, while bearing down on costs.
  • Researchers themselves wish to see speedy and effective publication and dissemination of research results
  • Researchers also wish to secure high impact and credit for their work.

Probably the most important change in the ecology will be increased bargaining power for the producers of research.  As Finch notes:

…one of the advantages of open access publishing is that it brings greater transparency about the costs, and the price, of publication and dissemination. The measures we recommend will bring greater competition on price as well as the status of the journals in which researchers wish to publish. We therefore expect market competition to intensify, and that universities and funders should be able to use their power as purchasers to bear down on the costs to them both of APCs and of subscriptions.

The Wellcome Trust is adapting to an open access world and is factoring APCs into its funding.   In this interview the Trust’s Robert Kiley explains in some detail the financial implications of an open access publication policy and notes a downward pressure on APCs, $1,300 being the charge made by the Public Library of Science.

Academic publishers will not necessarily go out of business but their business model will have to change, and not simply by switching their revenue source from the the consumer to the producer. What we might see is the emergence of a variety of ways of consuming research, based on models evolved by the likes of Amazon and Google. In other words the publishers will have to respond with an attractive offer in return for the APC (for more on how journal might evolve see Some suggest a greater role for tools such as Figshare ( which hosts ‘the smallest piece of research to communicate’. In the new world of open access, peer review might be handled through knowledge blogs.

The upshot is that academics and their institutions now need to look seriously at dissemination.  Finch concludes that

representative bodies for key sectors including central and local Government, voluntary organisations, and businesses, should work together with publishers, learned societies, libraries and others with relevant expertise to consider the terms and costs of licences to provide access to a broad range of relevant content for the benefit of consortia of organisations within their sectors; and how such licences might be funded

How shall we in the social services respond to this disruption?  Is this a great opportunity to engage with our academic institutions and the Scottish Government to bring about the change envisaged by Finch? Can we use knowledge blogs for peer review?  How else might we use social media as part of the cultural change envisaged by Finch?

IRISS would be delighted to help facilitate open access to Scotland’s high quality research outputs.  Indeed, we were already considering the idea of an open access journal. Thoughts please!