The Web's Impact on Social Work Education: Opportunities, Challenges, and Future Directions

Article excerpt

SOCIAL WORKERS TODAY operate in a world of limited resources and increasing demands for our services. We are faced with the challenges and pressures of staying current with new developments in a rapidly changing environment--the use of technology is one aspect of the current environment that may be perceived either as a threat or an opportunity. Our continually evolving field requires us to have a broad knowledge base; to keep up with new trends in practice, programs, and services; to share knowledge with colleagues; and to help guide the development of policies and programs that are responsive to consumer needs in the new millennium. The World Wide Web is a tool to help us manage the multiple demands on our time and energy.

As social work educators, we must keep pace with the technology our students are using, encourage them to use the new resources available on the Web, and instruct them on the use of the Web as a tool for professional growth and renewal. However, staying current with the rapid changes brought about by the Web and other new technologies may be a challenge for many educators. For example, Selden, Syzmborski, and Norelli (1997), in a study of how new patterns and forms of scholarly communication altered faculty's research methods, found that "faculty's research patterns remained essentially unchanged with few exceptions, but that they integrated new sources and formats of information into their repertoire in an incremental fashion" (p. 1).

While some may be a bit hesitant to plunge into using the Web, we hope to show that such apprehension is unwarranted. The changes attributed to the Web are less radical than incremental if viewed in the context of what we do in our work. The Web is, in many ways, simply a new format for accomplishing many of our everyday tasks.

Today, there are more than 250 million websites indexed by commercial search engines, many of which are dedicated to social work (L. Shay, personal communication, April 24, 2001). In this article, we look at how social work educators who are interested in Web technology, but not yet skilled in applying it professionally, can make use of relevant Web resources. We seek to demystify the Web in ways that will tempt educators to integrate it into their educational practice as they take into account the best ways to prepare students for future professional practice. To this end, the World Wide Web has made new materials accessible to help social work educators, students, and practitioners; has concentrated often difficult-to-find material in accessible sites; and has radically altered some of the traditional resources for the field (Marson, 1997; Marson, 1998). This article groups the seemingly endless collection of online resources into several broad categories so that current challenges and opportunities can be discussed, and implications for the future use of these resources can be explored. Our discussion focuses on the following categories: (a) search engines, (b) computer-mediated communications, (c) scholarship and electronic information/ texts, (d) educational offerings and career resources, and (e) Web applications in the classroom.

Search Engines

Search engines work by using software that first examines the Web, then retrieves and indexes documents. When a query is entered at a search engine website, the input is checked against the search engine's keyword index and the best matches are returned as "hits." The two most widespread methods of text searching are by keyword and concept. Keyword searching is commonly used because most search engines use them for text inquiry and retrieval. Authors of Web documents often specify keywords via the use of meta tags that are embedded in the document. If this is not done, search engines determine keywords by pulling out and indexing words that appear to be significant. Frequently appearing words and words toward the beginning of documents are most likely to be identified as important (Barlow, 2001; Search Engine Watch, 2001). …