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The future of social work in a world of AI

Psychologist taking notes during therapy session with her emotional female patient that talking with about her problems and actively gesturing

Interview with Dr Poppy Masinga, Head of the Faculty of Social Work and Community Development at SACAP

The world of work is changing so rapidly that many young people entering tertiary studies can not be sure if their chosen career will exist once their studies are completed.  The question is no longer about whether a machine can do the job better on an assembly line; but whether Artificial Intelligence, processing massive, disparate data in a moment, will predict, diagnose, and highlight solutions faster and more accurately than humans. Technology is radically shaping our near future, and we are hard-pressed to find clear assertions that humans can do better than our extraordinary innovations in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

Social work is one of those highly sought-after professions where the human aspect is what makes the difference.  No one appreciates this more than social work educator, Dr Poppy Masinga, recently appointed to take the role of the new Head of Social Work and Community Development at SACAP (the South African College of Applied Psychology). She began her career because she was inspired as a child by a dedicated social worker who changed lives in the impoverished Mbombela Township in Mpumalanga where she grew up.  “There is no doubt that with the current socio-economic, political and environmental issues, there is definitely a compelling reason to train more social workers who can effectively intervene to minimise the negative impacts on people’s social functioning and to promote their well-being” says Dr Masinga.  

Across the globe, there is an intense focus on injustice, inequality, and climate-related crises that impacts the well-being of individuals and communities. The world’s need for people with the appropriate knowledge, skills and competencies to help change lives for the better is increasing. South Africa is one of such countries that has seen the need for training social workers for the current socio-economic, political and environmental contexts. SACAP is one of the key role players in the higher education context for training social workers of the future.

“Traditionally, social work has been concerned with child and family welfare,” says Dr Masinga. “Practitioners have worked with governments, non-governmental and community-based organisations to reach vulnerable citizens and help to bring about desirable and sustainable change. Currently, we may be living in the most progressive and technologically advanced times, but political instability, humanitarian crises, racial and class inequality, poverty, violent crime, gender-based violence and hate crime remain real-life problems a smart machine or robot cannot solve.  The question to ask is not about when technology will replace social workers, but how the social work profession can begin to train social work students and practitioners on how to deploy enabling technologies to implement effective interventions cost-efficiently, to achieve better outcomes on larger scales.  This means reviewing how we provide social work education that trains graduates who are theoretically and practically fit for the future practice contexts.”

If anything, the mandate of social workers has become more complex and more urgent.  The profession demands a new generation of social workers who go beyond simply reacting to crises.  What needs to change so that we educate future social workers to harness the power of new technologies to advance their impact?  “We need social workers, not necessarily just as problem-solving foot soldiers going from door to door, but as progressive, transformative and innovative leaders, who can intervene at multiple levels, finally impacting policy and driving change across all aspects of our society,” says Dr Masinga.  She adds that technology can be used at all levels of social work intervention from engagement with service users to design, implementation and evaluation. Technological advancement should be embraced and not to be seen as a threat to the existence of the social work profession. Technological tools can be effectively used to enhance the effectiveness of social work interventions when applied by social workers who have been well trained and have learned the core skills such as relationship building, community engagement, critical thinking, problem solving and communication.  She believes that the future of social work at this time in our human history is as bright as it has ever been and is in more demand than it has ever been.

As a frontrunner in educating vital change agents, SACAP has launched a Bachelor of Social Work degree in 2021 which meets both national and international qualifications standards and enables graduates to register with the South African Council for Social Services Professions (SACSSP) to practice.  The four-year blended learning education programme falls into SACAP’s Social Work and Community Development faculty which recognises the urgent need for offering training in this distinct profession. It includes a substantial Work Integrated Learning component to enable students to acquire varied experience in the field and help meet South Africa’s urgent requirements for work-ready, transformational social workers.

SACAP offers a unique student experience that promotes personal growth hand-in-hand with rigorous academic progress and the development of work readiness.  Small classes ensure close and productive relationships with lecturers, supervisors and peers.  Dr Masinga concludes, “With SACAP’s student-centred approach, we invest in making sure that our students develop to their fullest potential. We educate our students ‘for a Better World’, and they will not only focus on people’s rights, but also environmental justice.  Our students have the opportunities to reflect on their own beliefs, assumptions, privileges and biases. Through our training programme, they will undergo immense transformation.  They will be able to work with people from diverse backgrounds offering a myriad of developmental experiences.  They will begin to appreciate and unleash the power they have to positively influence people’s lives. These are the kinds of professionals the world requires to deal with the technologically advanced but at-risk future.” DM


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