How the Field of Social Work Is Adapting to Modern Technologies Like Virtual Reality, A.I.

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A field that’s traditionally people-focused is now adapting to and embracing new technologies, including virtual reality and even artificial intelligence. That doesn’t mean that social work will be turned over to the bots; rather, several universities are looking for ways to incorporate these emerging technologies into their curricula to adapt to the modern reality we live in—with the ultimate goal of expanding services to people in need.

Tech advancements in social work can better prepare students for the realities they face in the field upon arriving on someone’s doorstep, oftentimes acting as the lifeline people desperately need when experiencing a potential crisis in life. In February, for example, the University of Kentucky’s College of Social Work began using virtual reality (VR) in child welfare investigation simulations. Students wear VR goggles and virtually assess a home environment to determine a child’s safety, or investigate implications of neglect or abuse.

“We really started to lean into looking at different ways to prepare students; a lot of times people can learn just by delivering content in different ways,” Justin “Jay” Miller, dean of Kentucky’s College of Social Work, tells Fortune. “We do a lot of virtual reality simulations, which is really a good way for students to gain the experience they need before they get out into other contexts.”

Fortune sat down with Miller to learn more about how the school is preparing its advanced-degree students to become well-equipped social workers in this new tech era. 

Virtual reality in social work curriculum 

At the time of his appointment in 2019, Miller was the youngest dean in the country, and this has actually been an advantage. Because he was introduced to technology at an early age, this contributes to why implementing VR in the school’s social work curriculum for advanced degrees seems like a natural progression to Miller. “The tech and A.I. space is just where we are. There’s no sense in running from it. We try to lean into it.”

Miller understands the need for a capable social worker’s intervention; in fact, he once needed the help of a social worker at a younger age—and this experience reinforces his dedication to finding ways to continue to advance the field’s mission. “If these tech avenues afford us the opportunity to ensure social workers are more prepared to enter the field, we owe it to them, to ourselves, and to society at large to incorporate these tools.”

A couple of years ago, Miller started the eService Initiative, which he says focuses on recognizing that the future of social work research, education, and practice is going to be tech-focused. The ways in which social workers are educated, as well as how they will perform their roles in the field, is “fundamentally going to change,” says Miller.

Yet, the primary role of a social worker acting as a person’s support system is still at the core of the profession.

“The work social workers are doing and the programs we’re using to educate social workers—it’s so much more than quizzes, tests, and reading chapters,” says Miller. “You’re training people to intervene in someone’s life, often at times when they’re at their lowest, and that’s not something we should take lightly.”

New technologies aid social workers

While some people may have an aversion to implementing technology in a field that’s traditionally more people-focused, there are ways these tools can be used to aid social workers in performing their role. “The biggest difference between people is not race and not gender, it’s generational,” says Miller. “I think it’s really time to shape the way we think about contemporary education and what it means in terms of the tech engagement space.”

What’s more, there’s a role for technology in providing access to treatment—particularly the use of telehealth services via Zoom or other video platforms, Mirean Coleman, clinical director at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), tells Fortune. Cognitive behavioral therapy software can also expand access to at-home treatment, she adds.

As technology continues to influence and enhance the way social workers function in their roles, some uncertainty remains. “But all of these things make you wonder: Where are we headed?” she adds.

How VR is shaping the future of social work care

In February, a team at the University of Kansas developed a virtual therapy system, which they say addresses many of the issues of remote counseling, while also providing mental health care workers—like clinical social workers—with real-time data on brain activity. A signal that the demand for remote counseling has not vanished since the height of demand a couple years ago, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As these new technologies continue to become more commonplace in the school’s social work curricula, the University of Kentucky also aims to provide students with a clear understanding of its precautions and ethical concerns.

“We’re looking at parts of the curriculum where we can deliver and model how to use the tech, then spending time training students around what it is, things you need to be aware of, and ethical use,” says Miller. “If it’s a virtual reality clinical visit, what does that look like?” he continues. “It’s the same thing we went through with telehealth.”

Miller is optimistic about the role technology will play in the future of social work.

“I hope that embracing tech with regards to training social workers is a movement that everybody gets into, so ultimately it will continue to advance our practice.”

For over 85 years, the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky has been a leader in education. Our mission is clear: Through rigorous research, excellence in instruction, and steadfast service, the CoSW works to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways.

As the state’s flagship university, our mission is actualized through our deeds. Our faculty are renowned academicians dedicated to fostering the development of high-quality practitioners and researchers. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world.