For social work students, spending 500 hours taking a practicum – learning from experienced practitioners in a social agency, not-for-profit or other organization – is a critical component of learning how to promote social justice, the foundation of the discipline.
“We talk about the practicum being the heart of social work,” says Jessica Ayala, a senior instructor in UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work and director of Field Education. “It’s really a practice-oriented profession. Students learn to integrate theory and practice and develop their skills while being mentored by a social worker.”
But this long-standing tradition is in crisis. The unpaid practicum for social work students – field education – is at risk due reduced budgets in health care and the subsequent inability for cash-strapped organizations to provide time, space and staff to accommodate growing numbers of social work practicum students.
Ayala and her colleagues have just completed a two-year research project that studies the challenges facing field education for social workers in Canada, and what innovative practices and new models are being considered by universities across the country to promote field education.
“There’s a whole range of different kinds of innovative practicum placements being looked at,” she says. “One of them is establishing a clinic right within the faculty that can provide services to the public, like how law students have a student legal assistance office.”
Other ideas include finding different ways to supervise practicum students, including group supervision and encouraging social work alumni to mentor current students. “We really focused on trying to identify some of the people in universities that are thinking about innovation so that we can capture new strategies for making practicum accessible and sustainable for students,” says Ayala. Practicum is a fundamental element of social work education and it is required for accreditation. “We need to find solutions to the current state of crisis.”
The challenge over practicums for social work students may also soon engulf other disciplines that rely on students taking field education to finish their degrees. “There are more programs popping up, more programs taking more students and more students who all need practicum placements in order to complete their degrees,” Ayala says. More research and eventually a multi-stakeholder strategy is needed to further explore how to deliver field education for social work and other students.
“Trying to do things differently, change and innovation requires a lot of time, energy and support,” she says. “This is long-term work.”
– – – – –
ABOUT OUR EXPERTS
Jessica Ayala, PhD, is a senior instructor in UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work and director of the Office of Field Education. She researches the role of technology in social work education and practice. Her previous roles include e-learning specialist at the Calgary Health Region as well as working in administration and leadership in the non-profit sector.