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Peer Review network Applying Intelligence to Social work Education

2003-4724/001-001 EDU-ELEARN



PROJECT SUMMARY

The PRAISE project, funded under the eLearning initiative of the European Commission, aimed at creating a community of best practice relating to the innovation of training methods for social workers across seven European member states. The partnership was composed of nine institutions, with competencies ranging from social sciences to pedagogy through to technology for education. The project duration was 22 months, from January 2004 to October 2005. Moreover, it worked in strict cooperation with another European project funded under the Socrates Minerva action, named CABLE, and the joint effort combined nine European member states, involving twelve institutions.

Professionals involved in the field of personal support and help require a wide range of skills, including human relational capabilities, introspective analysis, self control, group work capabilities, and so on. The everyday tasks performed by these professionals are very time consuming, and often this involvement limits, in a considerable way, the time that can be dedicated to an individual's development and training, in comparison with other professional operators that are not directly involved in the case interventions.

The PRAISE project addressed these aspects, because individual lifelong training, even if often set aside, is of paramount importance for improving the quality and the effectiveness of the operative interventions. The adaptation of the training actions to an ever-changing reality such as society necessarily implies the investment of time and resources in teaching, research and communication. Experience and knowledge acquired in this sector mainly reside in the social workers who, during the execution of their work find innovative resources, build "small theories" in adapting the classical methodologies to the situation they have to face. Knowledge sharing, confrontation, and an open mind towards external inputs assume, therefore, a base importance, and raises the need for methodologies that are adherent to the intervention praxis. This all helps to maintain the motivational and concrete links without whom the educational action might become sterile (if not counterproductive), owing to the lack of everyday work support. PRAISE did not want to negate the importance of the theoretical and epistemological research work available; rather, it endeavoured to stress that this work should be related, especially during dissemination, to an educational methodology adjusted to the set goals.

All the partners involved in the project routinely accomplish institutional functions and have developed substantial experience in the field over their competence territories. Over the years they have developed their own methodologies suitable to face their specific problems. PRAISE, therefore, did not aim at producing educational materials (courses, software, etc.) to substitute, modify or increment the educational curricula that are presently implemented by each partner, but rather to thoroughly analyse the study of educational methodologies capable of meeting the challenges that the European and the world dimension are presenting now, and presumably will continue to present in the mid term.

Most of partners had already learned, often at their own expense, how important it is to consider state of the art in shaping educational curricula, in order to have a product ready in the exact moment it is required. They agreed on the importance of investing time and resources into research, of using suitable tools in the field of the new information and communication technologies, of experimenting with innovative approaches, of linking design and experimentation actions through a network wide enough to support the comprehension of the phenomena under analysis, of sharing theories and experiences among territories that may present analogous situations, and of confronting personal experiences with very different situations.

Furthermore, most social workers and educators are somewhat reluctant to use computer tools and advanced technologies in their everyday work. One of the main causes of this behaviour is the difficulty they have in identifying immediate concrete benefits against the costs of learning to use these tools. For this reason, another action of PRAISE aimed at bridging this gap, with the firm belief that the communication among different and distant countries can be improved and augmented with the help of computer and network tools, and that open and distance education is possible, even desirable, in the socio-educational field.

Specifically, the first and main objective of the PRAISE project was to foster the sharing of good practice in the field of personal services, both locally with the establishment of virtuous circles coordinated by the local partners, and at European level, linking these virtuous circles in a European communication network. A number of issues assumed particular relevance for this goal:

  1. establishment and management of the virtuous circles;
  2. involvement of professional profiles, with related educational needs and curricula;
  3. network communication and interaction, and shared work strategies;
  4. verification and sustainability;
  5. transmission and the reproducibility of the acquired experience.

A second objective was the careful study of the main topics that are taught in the social worker curricula through a series of theoretical and practical seminars. These topics have been discussed among the partners in the light of the results of the issues previously described. The main focus was on three topics: Narration as a shared work methodology; the impact of knowledge society technologies and methodologies on personal services and social worker education; peer review of established and new educational processes and methodologies in the scope of social services.

The third and final goal was to a create a network of expert social workers that understand in detail the reality and the related problems of currently implemented methods, and that could intervene in arising critical situations. To reach this goal, PRAISE worked on promoting group work, on experimenting educational methodologies localized in the various real contexts, on analysing the educational impacts in order to extract useful information with which to build open and distance educational models, and on verifying the effectiveness and efficiency of the implemented training curricula.

Given these goals, target groups intended to directly benefit from the PRAISE project are the workers and the managers of target services, the students linked to the project partners' educational institutions and the teachers that produce on-line courses oriented to social worker education. Additionally, it is intended to have indirect impact also on the users of the target services and their families and organizations, and on anybody that can freely use online educational materials.

The educational model was based on good practice examples, collected by the operators or students in local contexts, and subsequently shared in the virtuous circles in order to extract theory and common views about these examples. In cooperation with the CABLE project, a common data base of good practice examples is available to all the involved partners, who contribute to and access the case studies collection, thus creating a European communication network to support a social workers distributed virtuous circle.

The good practice examples are encoded in a narrative form and reports are collected and analysed through software support. Experiences coming from the different countries are compared to determine their reuse potential, and face-to-face and distance training modules are designed in order to support the identified priorities, in cooperation with those institutions that address social and educational policies.

To summarize, the main achievements that PRAISE intended to reach were:

  1. supply the partners with a neutral research and study space, i.e., a space that is not conditioned to the operational contingencies of any site but that is able to aggregate and increase the value of each experience;
  2. support the local virtuous circles, thus indirectly affecting the quality of user services;
  3. involve all social realities in the territory through the virtuous circles (public and private sectors, associations, etc.)
  4. link theory and praxis in social work, according to criteria and methodologies that couple face-to-face meeting with open and distance education specific paths;
  5. identify local support networks linked with open European networks, and carefully study their limits and potentialities;
  6. combine face-to-face education with communication and training through new technologies.

A series of tangible results has been produced, namely, a quality improvement in the educational courses produced by the partners, the establishment of groups for the mutual educational and operational support, and production of educational material free for use. Additionally, PRAISE has involved structures and institutions outside the partnership, and created communication, dissemination and mutual support channels that will live beyond the project duration.

Finally, the present book is the conclusive and main deliverable of the PRAISE project. It will share with the readers the experience and the results of a group of institutions and people working together for 22 months with both a common goal and the enthusiasm for change.

Introduction

PRAISE is about transmitting effectively best practice for social workers through training and continuous professional development [CPD]. It achieves to do this via the adaptation of established organizational training and CPD frameworks with potentially new and effective formational methodologies as well as integrating some powerful aspects of new elearning technologies. Yet, as within many professional practice domains, there has been hitherto such a low level of impact on these traditional methodologies of things commonly referred to as elearning, that we must first standardize some concepts and provide a necessarily brief overview of certain theories.

What do we mean when we speak of elearning? To break the word down into its roots, we see that it is composed of electronic learning ; thus, it is a modern, technologically influenced form of learning. Learning is a process by which new experience results in a measurable, assessable change in behaviour or knowledge. The behaviour or knowledge can be physical, attitudinal, intellectual, etc. To introduce information and communication technologies to this process is important since many people would take it as a core assumption that for someone to learn from another's experience or knowledge, that experience needs to be communicated in some form. Here, with the advent of networked communications systems and easy access to structured information via these systems, this communicative act should become both more effective and efficient for people with busy lifestyles in the modern workplace. Elearning would refer to the enhancement or facilitation of the learning process, by adapting the delivery of a learning, training or other educational experience by electronic means, including both formal and informal scenarios. It covers a wide set of application and services, including those based on computer based learning, virtual spaces, digital collaborations, and web based learning.

A term popular in today's educational circles is that of blended learning , which involves the application of more traditional educational methodologies and scenarios mixed with those developed under the elearning label. This blended learning approach is more realistic of peoples' everyday scenarios, and provides a powerful context in which to apply these new techniques. Blended learning is a recognition that elearning has simply been, since its arguable inception during the 1970s in the form of CBL, an augmentation of the learning process, not a wholesale replacement with computers.

Since this book is about transmitting experiential knowledge, best practice, etc. to others, and learning from their own experiences, much of the basis for this work is motivated by constructivism. For those unaware of the differences between the major psychological schools, there are three major divisions for educational use. Behaviorism holds that knowledge is completely passive, and mostly automatic response to environmental factors, external to the learner. In contrast, cognitivism holds that knowledge is the collection of an individual's abstract symbolic representations that can be parceled up and delivered to another's collection. Constructivism differs from the absolutist frames and holds that knowledge is a constructed entity made by the learner during the learning process, i.e., during the transmission phase.

Constructivism can be traced back as an established school to the works of Piaget, Dewey, Vygosky and Bruner. The basic understanding of constructivism is given succinctly by von Glaserfeld (1987) as:

  1. Knowledge is actively constructed by the learner, rather than through passive transmission from the environment;
  2. There is a adaptation process that is based upon and constantly modified by a learner's life experience, which represents coming to know.

This aspect is sometimes referred to as radical constructivism, and is a divorce from other epistemological theories that only view communication as simple transmission of symbolic representations between holders. Constructivism promotes the idea that new knowledge is grafted into existing frameworks held by the learner. Thus, each learner has a personal perspective through which they see the world and adapt to new experience. All emphasis has hereto been on the individual learner as a constructor; Vygotsky stressed the social aspect of learning, with his Zone of Proximal Development and Activity Theory (1978). This aspect stresses that the learner is not in isolation but within a wider environment, and this social world, including teachers, friends, clients, co-workers, etc., will profoundly influence the learner's new knowledge constructs. Building on this, Cobb (1994) asks if mind is found in the head or in social action, and argues that both perspectives are necessary and should be used together. What is seen from one perspective as a group of individuals each reasoning independently and each mutually adapting to each other's actions and experience can also be seen, from the other perspective, as the normative practices of a classroom community (Cobb, 1998).

Teaching strategies which base themselves on social constructivism include contextualized teaching, contexts which are personally meaningful, and therefore motivating, for students. Also included would be group discussion, small-group collaborations, and valuing meaningful activity over correct answers (Wood et al, 1995).

The different aspects of constructivist theories can be divided between those with a cognitive orientation, i.e., holding that the knowledge is constructed during exploration and discovery and then represented as a mental, symbolic representation only found in the mind of the learner. In contrast, the social orientation stresses the collaborative, communicative aspects between learners as embodying the learning. This forms a part of the basis for CSCL [Computer Supported Collaborative Learning]. All of this constructivist school holds implications for the PRAISE methodologies when considered by knowledge workers and organizations, as embodying a domain specific distributed intelligence. As Roy D. Pea states:

... the focus in thinking about distributed intelligence is not on intelligence as an abstract property or quantity residing in either minds, organizations or objects. In its primary sense here, intelligence is manifested in activity that connects means and ends through achievements (Pea, 1993).

This distributed intelligence reflects the critical knowledge asset of social operators and trainers inside social service organizations, and is equally applicable to any experiential knowledge based organization.

The experimental space that was created by PRAISE in the participating organizations had two poles. The first pole was to motivate and experiment with students in the use of new supportive technologies that fall under the elearning umbrella, a description of which comes in this book. The other pole was to motivate and experiment with students using the new pedagogical methodologies that are also described in this book. An integrated approach, utilizing aspects of both of these poles in an effective fashion, was sought from all participating institutions. That said, there were choices made by the different organizations that reflect their own local circumstances. The book has extensive detail, analysis and reflection on these differences, and is there useful to a wider variety of knowledge based organizations which seek to improve practice based training systems in their own local context.

Crucially, PRAISE had feet in two different stakeholder camps: organizations involved in training of social workers, and organizations involved in operational services. This helped to ensure the wider applicability of the PRAISE results to professionals involved in modern, best-practice based social services. It was a project that was challenging but important, and the participants in PRAISE were committed to trying to experiment and improve these processes. What follows is a summary of the project itself, the experience of which this book is a distillation.

Activities

Table of Task / Partner participation
Left click on the image to enlarge

Methodology

Facing the complexity of a such articulated project (including both computer sciences and pedagogical activities) has been very difficult and has required to join different methodologies (working together).


The management of the project has conducted the partnership to reach almost all the planned result (as declared in the monitoring report) and has demonstrated a lot of strength points, but also some weaknesses
Strengths



Weaknesses


Conclusions

PRAISE has had several measurable, positive impacts on the training systems of several European social worker training and service operator organizations. It has also had a significant impact on the effectiveness and sustainability of CPD and COPs of an important experiential knowledge based domain. These impacts range from individuals to entire organizations, and across formative methodologies, technological incorporation, strategic focus and planning. This final chapter will provide an overview of the results of the PRAISE experimentation as described in the preceding chapters.

There was uniformly an increase in teacher interest in utilizing the PRAISE elements, including elearning techniques and CSCL based in VLEs, case based learning supported by technology, the use of virtuous circles and narrative transmission for structuring experience sharing. In most of the participating institutions, this interest has cascaded beyond the original groups associated with the project. ICE, for example, now is routinely using the CSDB as a pedagogical resource. They also are designing training programmes for a wider set of teachers withing the faculty in the use of CSDB in their programmes.

PRAISE has resulted generally in a closer relationship between researchers and practitioners. The interest of the VC members to participate in active research has been increased, which should result in a more responsive domain knowledge base overall. This incorporation of better knowledge recognition and encapsulation should have serious positive impacts on improving the state of domain practice. There is a commitment amongst participants to continue the project's methodology because of the measured benefits that they accrued through participation and engagement. In order to support this desire, management has to react. UB, for example, has made it a strategic priority to seek further funding opportunities amongst a variety of channels in order to resource the transformation to PRAISE practices. INFOP has integrated directly into their everyday training systems those methodological components they derived from the project. More specifically, the PRAISE framework has become the INFOP framework for training activities within normal practice. Also, there are moves to make permanent the self-directed training valorised by elearning within the French course DEFA.

The project saw a general increase in learner motivation, across the partners, to work in a collaborative fashion, to analyse case studies and seek solutions to complex problems in these manners. These results lend themselves more closely to the requirements of a knowledge society and coupled economy. Furthermore, it resulted in more effective learning by students on the course, evidenced by collaborative learning and self evaluation and demonstrated ability to put in practice the skills attained through the process. This is an important point to note due to its implications for redesigning training systems in practice based, experiential knowledge domains in order to further strengthen European knowledge economies and knowledge workers.

There was measured increased motivation amongst individuals to collaborate on case study collection both inside and outwith the participating, host institutions. There is steadily increasing interest in participating in the VCs by members of other disciplines within the host local authority, but who interact in common problem domains. Sustainability will result from attempts to more systematically integrate these methods into full course provision and to repeat successful courses. Presently, there is a strong COP effect occurring where individuals are propagating news of the new methodology amongst different discipline practitioners. Training management is seeking ways to incorporate the methodologies into normal practice where appropriate.

Another linked result is the added value to the self-directed group learning owing to the application of the PRAISE methodology, which can be characterised as an extension of the local training networks. Additional training input into these networks for the management, the monitoring and development of the project resulted in creating further training for teachers who are members of these networks. These members then participate fully in the network and thus self-organize the PRAISE project. Also, these teachers are now monitoring the immediate and future experience of the project. This indicates that the training networks involved have become more sustainable as a result of participation in the PRAISE project and methodologies.

There were large organizational changes and related investments and developments in training systems as a result of PRAISE. Elearning technologies and competence sharing were areas to benefit from investment and development inside organizations, sometimes from very low intial levels, as well as the development and implementation of new methodologies. The main outcome is the structuring of distance and open education curricula, again important for practice based domains to fully participate in the emerging European knowledge society and economy. Another result is the acquisition of skills and competencies in using elearning for building educational modules. The reduction of the costs associated with self-directed learning for adult students to become more flexible in space and time, provide just-in-time education, and facilitate a circulation of experience. There was also an increase in social worker satisfaction owing to less time wasted in travelling for training events and opportunities in their already overscheduled roles, allowing for more involvement in real case work. In a related fashion, there was a perceived increase in the effectiveness and efficiency of both training and working on real case work.

Examples of this process resulting in real change include Comune di Torino, which has now created a new, permanent unit inside the organization which offeres distance education programmes for staff. New investment has been made from core budget for new technology deployment to support these new programmes. A new accreditation from the local education authority has been created for the institutional elearning training programmes and the elearning based curriculum is now part of the executive plan of the Comune di Torino

Another example is the systematic incorporation of the PRAISE methodology into the normal INFOP framework that has resulted in their own large structural organizational changes. These include an increase in numbers of training staff in the organization. However, to remain within a fixed budget, the organization reshuffled the group timetable and the distribution of the staff workload, displacing other tasks onto administrative staff, to allow for more training opportunities. All of these related changes are important for increase effectiveness and efficiency for knowledge based organization working in modern society.

A final example is the University of Akureyri, which has a continuing mission to develop a full social work education programme despite difficult institutional funding conditions. A basis has been achieved whereby social workers and students can participate with future UA provision from across the country, including designing and developing any such provision. There has been a great deal of enthusiasm and interest in the PRAISE methodologies as a means of reflection and CPD. The PRAISE project has greatly increased the capacity and quality of course design and development for the planned social work programme. Senior management in social services of collaborating institutions have demonstrated interest in the opportunity to co-develop training programmes which will increase the effectiveness of graduates and make them more able to bring problem based methods to bear rather than a perhaps more traditional emphasis on theoretical aspects.

In the technological space, during the timeline of the PRAISE project, there were important developments. In addition to the successful development and application of new technologies to the training systems of the partners, in tandem with the methodological work, there were advances in the actual technology and the science surrounding it. The CSDB was a highly successful knowledge management and transmission application, which has great potential in further integration into other instances and similar knowledge/practice domains. It was utilized as a powerful tool to harness experiential knowledge and leverage it within a distributed organization, in this case, the distributed PRAISE partnership.

In the ontological engineering side, PRAISE managed to develop a complex ontology in the social worker conceptual domain through a group based, iterative process that spanned the project lifetime. The ontology that was developed was multi-lingual and multi-valued. All partner organizations were involved and placed currency in the process and the result, and that process itself was a learning experience for both the individual participants and for their host organizations. Again, referring to the distributed intelligence aspects of PRAISE (both implemented project and conceptual methodology), the ontology represented encoded knowledge from all of the participants and as such was an emergent result, where the sum was greater than the input. The ontology produced is also an output which is may be picked up and maintained by a community.

There was a successful integration of cutting edge technologies which tied the ontology and the CSDB together into the VLE, with full reasoning support, to produce an intelligent VLE with access to case studies. With the use of reasoning technologies, the system was better able to support effective teaching and learning for practice based training candidates, and all within a multi-lingual environment. This is an important result for the betterment of CPD in the European landscape.
European dimension

There were several aspects of PRAISE that reflect issues in CPD of knowledge workers as well as social work training programmes at a European level. Amongst all of the participating organizations, throughout the project there was a growing interest amongst the local VC students in European social work issues as well as in language as a means of international communications. In Bethel, for example, is now using English language teaching utilizing case studies and practical work for a large number of its social workers. At a strategic level, Bethel intends to seek regular interaction with other European partners in their domain at both the teacher and student levels.

Another aspect of PRAISE was to increase awareness amongst staff of the importance of best practice from neighbouring countries. This was seen as a way to enrich local practice and to learn from others' experience and thus make new practice development more efficient. In some sense, this is the beginning realization of a distributed, European practice based intelligence. Also deemed important in this international sharing dimension was professional practice in terms of elearning techniques and straightforward technological skills acquisition, both amongst trainers and operators. This also must have some impact on standardization across Europe of both training systems and programmes as well as operations.

In recognition of this, several participating institutions have taken strategic management decisions to pursue international projects and collaboration in domains that have traditionally been underdeveloped. Sustainability is also recognized as being critical; INFOP, for example, has demonstrated that pursuit of such programmes leads to more choice in training opportunities with their internal collaborations, augmented by international collaborative partnerships which directly benefit the organization through knowledge sharing as well as opportunities for staff to develop their own programmes. Also, the new training courses offered involve new professional categories.

Implications for European Training Programmes

An interesting differentiation was revealed between the embedding of PRAISE methodologies and technologies in the different types of participating social work organizations. In the traditional HEIs, the radical nature of the PRAISE methodologies was resisted by traditional expectations from client organizations. This is in part a reflection of the nature of utilizing constructivist methodologies, both cognitive and social, inside traditional HEI frameworks and thus is not exclusive to PRAISE; rather, PRAISE is an important element in a reformulation of modern educational normative practice and expectation within modern European tertiary institutions. In addition, there is the incorporation of narrative transmission as a structuring element on knowledge, which is foreign, less formal and more subjective by its very nature, to what has been sought after in the adherence to objective scientific methodologies which have overtaken all humanist disciplines in the West over the last couple of centuries. This must confirm the relevance of the PRAISE methodological approach to modernizing experiential knowledge transmission and CPD within the important established academic structures through which many students develop.

In other organizations, the situation was reversed; in these examples, the participants and management were more au fait with the PRAISE methodologies, but were more inexperienced in modern elearning techniques. Part of this no doubt springs from traditional workloads and patterns which have seen social workers not deeply entrenched in the incorporation of ICT into their work patterns over even the last decade. However, once the technical aspects of elearning were understood, both clients and staff were eager for their further adoption. This confirms and validates the use of elearning as an effective and efficient tool in CPD within this domain.

Final Word

As can be seen in this book, the PRAISE project and its associated methodologies have had large, sustainable impacts on both the participating individuals and institutions in terms of their training, CPD, and application to real case work. The methodologies and associated technologies have, without doubt, strong implications for all European practice based knowledge workers, which would result in a stronger European knowledge society and economy, as well as a better environment for workers and clients.




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PRAISE is a project (contract number 2003-4724/001-001 EDU-ELEARN) co-funded by the European Commission under the E-Learning programme.

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