A place on the web

Social work teachers and software specialists
Mark Doel and Tarsem Singh Cooner describe how their web-based
interactive software could ease the difficulties surrounding
practice placements.

There is much talk about the new three-year
social work degree and, in particular, how agencies are going to
cope with the expectation that 50 per cent of a student’s time
should be spent on placement. Fifty per cent of three years is much
more than 50 per cent of two years, and there is a real concern
that this additional load will not be manageable in many areas.

However, there is a developing
consensus that we need an understanding of “practice learning” as
encompassing the whole of the student’s course, not just the
placement. Indeed, practice learning continues after qualification,
for as long as practitioners reflect on their practice. Of course,
the context of practice learning has an enormous impact on the kind
of learning which students experience. “Live” practice learning
provides the immediacy and spontaneity of direct contact with
service users in an agency context. This directness is a unique
feature of live practice learning.

we are agreed that the whole of a social work student’s education
is about practice learning, we are free to consider a wide range of
possibilities for the context for this learning. Computer software
may provide one of these contexts.

decided to create a computer-based programme to help students
prepare for live practice learning – and soon realised that we
faced a number of interesting challenges. Where should a virtual
placement be set? Set it in, say, a community mental health team
and you risk losing all those students who are not destined for
that kind of placement setting: so in the end, we created an
altogether different kind of reality, based on an allegory. This
gives students a chance to play in a different world, freeing them
to experiment a little.

“difficulty in seeing the wood for the trees” gave us our
inspiration. We created a wood, in which the student becomes an
explorer and the placement a quest. It was important to make the
software as friendly as possible so people could find their way
around it with ease. We await feedback, but hope that the design of
A Virtual Placement becomes quickly familiar and relatively easy to

Without the massive resources of
Nintendo or DreamWorks, we faced other technical challenges, not
least the size of the program to be downloaded. Since many of the
users of the program do not have fast internet connections, the
program is designed so it can be downloaded in segments, and once
downloaded can be stored.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has
been to make the program available to as wide a range of people as
possible. Originally we planned to make a CD-Rom, but decided to
experiment with a web-based format. By posting the whole program on
the web, there is no intermediary between the program and the user;
they can also access a discussion board to converse with other
users, and to give feedback.

“wood” has been designed to re-create situations, dilemmas and
responses that can occur in live placements, with the aim of
helping explorers consider the nature of good practice and to
rehearse it. We hope it will be widely relevant throughout health
and social care. The “trees” which the explorer visits are
currently: self-knowledge; knowing and learning; becoming and being
a professional; communicating; collaboration and conflict; making
decisions; and evaluating and reflecting.

As it
stands, A Virtual Placement focuses largely on the interpersonal
basis of professional practice. But we do not see practice as
confined to the interpersonal and would like to see the program
grow in other directions – community action, for example. The
format of the program allows for this kind of change and growth,
either by creating additional trees in the wood or perhaps by
considering an entirely different dimension in which explorers can
continue their journey of practice learning.

very much hope readers will visit A Virtual Placement and let us
know how they get on.  

– The
virtual placement software is free and can be downloaded from www.hcc.uce.ac.uk/virtualplacement

Mark Doel is professor of social work
and head of the school of social work and RNIB rehabilitation
studies at the University of Central England. Tarsem Singh Cooner
is e-learning manager at the department of social policy and social
work at the University of Birmingham. His company, TSC Productions,
has a website at

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.