Using Cutting-Edge AI Tech Tools to Educate Social Workers

Learn About the Innovative AI Tools and Technologies Used to Train the Next Generation of Social Workers

May 23, 2023
A woman uses a laptop computer by a table. Several holographic images emerge from the laptop.
Social workers can benefit from using the latest AI technology.

Social workers are needed now more than ever. This rewarding yet challenging profession helps people from all backgrounds whether advocating for those in need or helping with mental, behavioral, or emotional issues. Students who are studying to be social workers today have access to AI technology, which can serve to significantly enhance your training.

From pre-programmed “virtual patients” to platforms that replicate real-world administrative challenges, read on to learn about the ways AI is being used to train the next generation of social workers.

The Benefits of AI in Social Worker Training 

As we learn about the ways artificial intelligence – or AI – can improve how we approach everything from medicine to marketing, it’s not surprising that AI has very real benefits when it comes to the way social workers are trained. Dr. Jamie Sundvall, the Online MSW Program Director at Touro University Graduate School of Social Work, can attest to this firsthand. “By using AI in training, we can help students develop evidence-based clinical judgment in a controlled environment before they ever start practicing.”

Dr. Sundvall is currently building the curriculum for Touro’s brand new Master of Social Work with an emphasis on integrating technology to ensure that students get personalized education, work with cutting-edge tools, and build skills that will set them apart after graduation. “We are focused on giving students a high touch experience that combines independence and instruction. With these tools, we’re able to create flexibility but also use tech to create a more customized and tailored experience.”While online education has been around for a while, these innovative AI technologies provide a new layer of accessibility for both students and faculty. Degree candidates can enroll in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program online, and thanks to virtual reality tools like simulations and learning platforms, faculty can assess their skill level at any time and from anywhere in the world.

This means that students in rural areas or from marginalized populations now have access to the education needed to become trained social workers. Then, they can serve their communities with cultural sensitivity and a first-hand perspective that avoids the stigma and shame that often prevent people from seeking help. “We bring access to those who don’t have it – to populations that might resist traditional healthcare. They’re overlooked culturally, and it’s important to train a diverse workforce to represent populations with marginalized access,” explains Dr. Sundvall.

AI in Social Worker Training: Decision Making Trees 

One of the ways in which AI is being used to train social workers is through the use of decision making trees in a virtual reality (VR) environment. These decision making trees are essentially programmed virtual patients that allow students to practice a specific type of assessment, like substance use or suicide. As the student interacts with the “patient,” they can apply the appropriate questions or theories to effectively engage them, identify their culture, build a rapport, and find the right intervention.

Decision making tree patients provide real-time feedback via responses, facial expressions, and tone of voice that help a student know if they’re getting off track. Dr. Sundvall likens it to having “bumpers” or “lanes” that keep students on course. It also gives educators data points and a roadmap to see a student’s strengths and struggles so they can see patterns and develop the student’s skills. It’s a way to train students in a safe environment, develop better precision in clinical judgment, and provide individualized training for the student.

AI in Social Worker Training: Virtual Reality Simulations 

Similar to decision making trees, virtual reality simulators have also become a powerful tool for social work education. Students can use a mobile device and a VR headset like Google Daydream to “step into” a virtual neighborhood and observe the community from a social work perspective. In one study, student participants who were immersed in an urban New York City community and prompted by reflective questions reported enhanced learning – supported by a four-point increase in pre-diagnostic test scores.

Virtual reality simulations are especially beneficial when it comes to disaster training for social workers, allowing students to “experience” a disaster in a safe, controlled environment. In reality, a disaster would likely be a challenging or even upsetting experience, but with exposure in a virtual reality setting, a social worker in training can practice, prepare, and condition themselves to respond in a calm and helpful manner.

AI in Social Worker Training: Administrative Platforms 

AI is also being used to help students master one of the more burdensome aspects of social work: administration. With cutting edge platforms that incorporate AI, students are now able to practice tasks like documentation, billing, and referrals in a simulated real-world environment. The technology reflects a realistic healthcare environment and gives students the ability to perfect their skills with over 700 customizable patient cases and activities – all while building a holistic view of the healthcare process.

“In the field of social work, it’s a known deficit that new social workers don’t have strong documentation skills,” Dr. Sundvall explains. “This system gives students a practice environment for billing features, referrals, concurrent documentation and collaboration with multidisciplinary teams prior to hitting a real-world setting.” By practicing in this virtual world, students learn to reduce billing issues, claims, and administrative burdens – providing them with a competitive edge upon graduation.

AI in Social Worker Training: ChatGPT 

Of course, one of the most talked about AI innovations is ChatGPT, and amongst its many applications, is its use in education. Many social work master’s degree programs have started to incorporate this technology and build students’ understanding of these resources and how they can be applied to their studies.

The potential for ChatGPT and similar large language models like Google’s Bard have the ability to analyze extensive amounts of data, create easy-to-understand summaries, evaluate programs, and much more. From performing researching to providing analysis, here are some of the ways social work students are learning to use ChatGPT to streamline their workloads:

  • Policy Development– Reviewing long policy documents, identifying the critical information, summarizing key points, and identifying gaps in existing policies
  • Program Evaluation – Analyzing large amounts of qualitative and quantitative data to determine a program’s success and identify improvement areas
  • Community Outreach– Customizing outreach messages that are culturally sensitive and engaging to more effectively build trust and create connections
  • Research and Reports- Comprehensively combing through resources to find relevant information and prepare overviews that synthesize insights and data
  • Mental Health Screening – Using AI to analyze text-based communication or therapy notes to look for patterns and spot signs of depression or anxiety

The Impact of AI Tools in Training Social Workers 

AI is transforming education for social workers and the student response has been overwhelmingly positive. Social work degree candidates are able to access training programs wherever they are and receive personalized feedback, customized coaching, and skill-building – which results in progressive learning.

Another unexpected benefit of the use of AI in social work education is a reduction in stress. “Many social work students have a significant amount of anxiety about being observed while they interact with patients – and about being graded,” Dr. Sundvall emphasizes. “AI tools like decision trees reduce a lot of that anxiety for students, and with personalized coaching that targets their strengths and areas for improvement, students are learning faster and more effectively – and better retaining competencies.”

The Role of AI in the Future of Social Work Education 

With new innovations in AI being developed every day, it’s likely that social work education will continue to embrace and incorporate these technologies—at least to an extent. Dr. Sundvall says that while the technology already exists to stream a 3D patient or a professor into a room to simulate real-life interaction, it’s still very expensive. “We want to offer students cutting-edge education, but it also has to be affordable,” she stresses. “The benefits need to outweigh the costs.”

Looking forward, she also recognizes the limits of AI. “People are so diverse, and there are so many variations of symptoms and nuances in diagnoses. It would be extremely challenging for the profession to ever rely on AI fully.”

Instead, it’s important to remain focused on making sure that social work education evolves alongside tech and factors in law and ethics. By viewing AI as partner, social workers will have the training and the bandwidth to serve their communities more effectively than ever.