Thoughts on the Grand Challenges paper: “Practice Innovation through Technology in the Digital Age: A Grand Challenge for Social Work”

This blog post briefly reviews the concept of Grand Challenges in Social Work and summarizes the working paper, “Practice Innovation through Technology in the Digital Age: A Grand Challenge for Social Work, which is one of two papers that explore the Grand Challenge, “Harnessing Technology for Social Good.”

In 2014 the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare (AASWSW) announced a Grand Challenge initiative for social work. The concept of discipline-specific “Grand Challenge” initiatives has been around since 1900, when mathematicians were challenged to solve 100 “unsolved” problems. Subsequent “Grand Challenge” initiatives (and the current one in Social Work appears to be no different) are efforts to unite increasingly specialized and fragmented professions to focus on a set of aspirational goals that, with focused attention, are achievable within a specific timeframe and will have a significant benefit for society. The AASWSW put out a call for suggestions and ultimately identified 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work organized into three categories: Individual and family well-being; stronger social fabric; and a just society that fights exclusion and marginalization, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers pathways for social and economic progress. A complete list of GC topics can be found here

Preliminary Grand Challenge topics were introduced at the 2015 Society for Social Work and Research conference in New Orleans ( I missed the presentation because I was having beignets and chicory coffee at Café du Monde ( The next day, Stephanie Berzin from Boston College and I were standing in line for more beignets at Café du Monde talking about the Tech Grand Challenge ( We were both interested in the role of technology in social work practice at the micro, mezzo and macro level (Singer & Sage, 2015). Over the next several months we corresponded with Claudia Colton, the AASWSW fellow coordinating the Technology GC, about the possibility of joining the existing “Big Data” GC paper (which can be found here: Although Claudia was very encouraging of our desire to explore practice, it became obvious that the “big data” and “practice” papers were too different in focus to be combined. Stephanie and I decided to write and submit a second GC paper. We invited Chitat Chan from Hong Kong Polytechnic to be a coauthor because he had recently authored several reviews of on technology and social work practice and research (e.g. Chan, 2015; Chan & Holosko, 2015). Our goal in writing the Practice Innovation through Technology in the Digital Age paper was to:

  1. list the reasons why leveraging technology for practice innovation was a compelling challenge for social work that, if met, would benefit society;
  2. present evidence that such a challenge could be met within the next 10 years;
  3. identify what progress will look like for practice, professional education, and research.

Without plagiarizing the document (which can be found here:, here are some highlights from the working paper:

Why should social workers leverage technology for practice?

  • Social services could be better. Social services in 2015 look VERY similar to social services in 1970: service options are limited to those offered in a specific geographic area, during typical business hours, and delivered by regional staff with fairly static skill sets. In contrast, I can go online, find and order a rare book, and have it delivered to my door within two hours by drone. Hyperbole aside, it is much more important to get the social services we need when we need it than it is to have a book sold and delivered. And yet, the anachronistic “brick and mortar” presentation of social services dominates our current service delivery system, training models, and visions of the future.
  • In the USA, there are more social workers than all other “helping” professionals combined. Social workers work in every service sector of society. Consequently changes in social work services, i.e. the effective integration and implementation of technology-informed services, would impact the greatest number of people.
  • Social workers should also take up this challenge because our values and ethics are explicitly aligned with addressing the most pressing and important issues for marginalized and oppressed populations. Recent advances in the integration of practice and technology have come from professions outside of social work. While these innovations are important, they do not reflect the values and services of social work, and therefore leave an important gap in practice innovation. Use of technology can address barriers to service: web-based services can address geographical barriers, scheduling issues, and increase the pool of providers with specific expertise.
  • Finally, technology has already “crept” into social work practice (Mishna, Bogo, Root, Sawyer, & Khoury-Kassabri, 2012). Unless we are intentional about the technology we use, and how and when we use it, we risk harm to clients and increased liability for providers.

What evidence exists that integrating technology and practice is possible?

  • There is a growing body of evidence that technologies such as computerized therapy, computer games, wearables, and mobile apps are feasible and effective in reducing symptoms and improving functioning (Barak, Hen, Boniel-Nissim, & Shapira, 2008; East & Havard, 2015; Kumar et al., 2013; Perle & Nierenberg, 2013).
  • There is a growing body of research that has found that technology can be integrated into existing social service systems and has potential to improve the quality of care. For example Melanie Sage, husITa board member and social work faculty member at the University of North Dakota, has published on the role of social media and child welfare.

What will progress look like?

  • Professional training: Students and professionals can use technologies like podcasts to “learn on the go.” Recent research found that podcasts were useful in learning and implementing a manualized treatment (Salloum & Smyth, 2013).
  • Research on technology and practice will not only evaluate outcomes, but will also evaluate the role of the technology in the outcome.
  • Social service providers will collaborate with technologists to develop the next generation of applications and services. This will ensure that technologies are developed to meet specific needs and within professionally agreed-upon ethical standards.


The paper, Practice Innovation through Technology in the Digital Age was written to ensure that practice and technology were at the table for the Grand Challenges initiative. The authors are very aware of the long history of social service / human service professionals thinking about and integrating technology into practice. We hope that the existence of this paper can serve as a touchstone or justification for future projects. We also hope that in 10 years we will look back on this document and marvel at how far we’ve come and how myopic our initial vision was for where the field could go.


Barak, A., Hen, L., Boniel-Nissim, M., & Shapira, N. ’ama. (2008). A comprehensive review and a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of internet-based psychotherapeutic interventions. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 26(2-4), 109–160.

Chan, C. (2015). A Scoping Review of Social Media Use in Social Work Practice. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, 1–14.

Chan, C., & Holosko, M. J. (2015). A Review of Information and Communication Technology Enhanced Social Work Interventions. Research on Social Work Practice.

East, M. L., & Havard, B. C. (2015). Mental Health Mobile Apps: From Infusion to Diffusion in the Mental Health Social System. JMIR Mental Health, 2(1), e10.

Kumar, S., Nilsen, W. J., Abernethy, A., Atienza, A., Patrick, K., Pavel, M., … Swendeman, D. (2013). Mobile health technology evaluation: the mHealth evidence workshop. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 45(2), 228–236.

Mishna, F., Bogo, M., Root, J., Sawyer, J.-L., & Khoury-Kassabri, M. (2012). “It just crept in”: The digital age and implications for social work practice. Clinical Social Work Journal, 40(3), 277–286.

Perle, J. G., & Nierenberg, B. (2013). How psychological telehealth can alleviate society’s mental health burden: A literature review. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 31(1), 22–41.

Salloum, A., & Smyth, K. (2013). Clinicians’ experiences of a podcast series on implementing a manualized treatment. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 31(1), 71–83.

Singer, J. B., & Sage, M. (2015). Technology and social work practice: Micro, mezzo, and macro applications. In K. Corcoran & A. R. Roberts (Eds.), Social workers’ desk reference (Third edition, pp. 179–188). Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

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