An Education on Two Planes

Perhaps it is because I am a millennial, but when I hear the word “simulation,” I cannot help but think of The Matrix and Neo taking the red pill. In some regards, higher education reminds me of The Matrix, in that educators and students are living in two completely separate worlds simultaneously—professors are both lifelong learners as well as leaders in the classroom, forcing them to straddle the dynamics of being a professional in the field as well as a shaper of minds. 

For those who teach in clinical fields, education is a two-fold process: knowledge that is applicable for accreditation or licensure, and knowledge  that has real-world relevance.

Additionally, we are all living in a world that seems especially uncomfortable and uncertain; so, as educators, what do you choose to focus on–the more digestible blue pill, or the harsh reality of the red pill?

Social work has always been a profession rooted in actual experiences. For years, this type of experiential learning relied heavily on internship and in-the-field experiences; however, simulated scenarios are becoming ever-increasingly utilized in training.

Simulated clinical sessions across a medley of professional environments allow students the opportunity to practice new skills, receive honest feedback, and earnestly self-critique. As Dr. David Cecil, professor of Social Work, stated, “The big impact for simulation is the real-time pressure and learning that it creates. I think there is also great value in students watching each other and realizing two important things: first, it is very normal to be nervous and to question the skills we bring into a meeting with a client or patient; and second, these are skills that are remarkably observable and can fairly quickly be modified to much good effect.”

So, while I am not suggesting we are all living in a fabricated reality, it is clear how powerful a tool simulation can be. At Samford University’s College of Health Sciences, Dr. Jean Roberson—Director of Field Education and professor for the Department of Social Work—uses simulated situations to teach graduate students core clinical practices as well as prompts vital to introspection in her students.

The Red Pill 

Without sugar-coating the situation, it is reasonable to say that times are hard across the board. Colleges have been forced to make challenging concessions in order to protect their students and faculty. So, while we have collectively swallowed this truth, there are still ongoing adaptations that must be made.

Dr. Lisa Baker, chair of the Department of Social Work, explained that Roberson is able to form community collaborations which give students field options that not only provide a great experience, but also provide a diverse selection of choices for students to choose among. This expansive selection has been particularly handy during the pandemic, because students and agencies have been able to make ideal matches based upon their collective needs.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), for example, has reduced the minimum requirement of field placement hours students must earn in order to graduate. Additionally, at Samford University, professors offer in-the-field alternatives in case a student must self-isolate.  Roberson explained how Samford protects students and clients in the era of COVID-19 by letting students trade traditional field hours for online training and research projects.

Brooke Bissell, current graduate social work student, explained, “Oftentimes what we learn in class can be fairly abstract, especially as Doc Rob’s class is pretty theory heavy. So, having a placement is a vital way to see theory played out in real life.”

Additionally, the use of technology has proven to be more a necessity than a novelty.

They Roll Among Us 

Samford’s College of Health Sciences has been keeping abreast with recent tech virtually since its inception. One of these technologies includes software from Duo Robotics and a roving tablet. As if something out of The Jetsons, students are greeted with a Zoom call on wheels, giving them the opportunity to use telehealth with clients.

Both Baker and Roberson have worked on many projects related to the use of simulation and virtual reality in social work education by integrating simulation and virtual reality throughout several courses and electives. These projects have provided students multiple opportunities to gain real world experience while in a safe environment.

While Samford is in Birmingham, many of the students are interacting with clients all over the state of Alabama, from urban to rural areas. By teaching students how to best utilize telehealth services, they are better prepared to use these vital skills post graduation. Bissell noted that these telehealth experiences not only benefit her as a future professional, but also allow her to help her clients who have chronic transportation problems.

Roberson commented on the importance of providing students with these distance-based practices, because it ultimately boils down to principles and ethics. As social workers, their concerns are not just for the individual clients, but also the policies that affect the population at large. By pioneering best clinical practices in telehealth technologies early and often throughout the graduate program, the college and its students are better equipped to serve clients adequately and with honor.

For example, as Roberson described, students working at a shelter are not simply addressing housing issues for those living in homelessness—they are also confronting daily the policies or systemic injustices in which homelessness is rooted.

“Having access to the simulation center on the Samford campus is a tremendous asset,” Baker explained, “but also branching out to the inclusion of virtual reality provides an augmented experience for students. Prior to the pandemic, telehealth was just beginning to be talked about in social work. The need for telehealth (especially in rural areas), however, has been pushed to the forefront. Because our program has already been identifying ways to integrate these technologies, we were one step ahead of the game.”

By utilizing telehealth tech and practices, students and organizations are more properly suited to reach a wide breadth of struggling individuals. In short, the number of people who are able to access care expands exponentially.

The Blue Pill 

Now that the unpleasantries of this current reality have been discussed, it only seems fitting to cover the benefits of simulations further.

While earning her doctorate in social work, Roberson studied how simulations benefit social work graduate students, and she found simulations promote more self-reflection and metacognition; this, in turn, teaches students how to more effectively and efficiently self-correct when in the moment of a clinical session. Though students are supervised at their field placements, by recording the simulations, students can more accurately view how they present themselves to clients.

Not shockingly, many students find the simulations to be anxiety producing at first, however, they quickly find themselves content in their roles. According to Bissell, “as soon as I entered the room I felt completely immersed in this world of make believe, and the time flew by. I thought I would be very conscious of the fact that it was a simulation, but instead I felt like it was real and I completely forgot people were watching me.”

Standardizing the Unpredictable 

During the simulations—unlike with roleplay—the students enter the session without being privy to the clients nor details on their situations. So, much like real life, the students are required to react in real-time to unexpected curve balls.

Samford gives all of their standardized patients rigorous training on how to embody whatever dynamic or strife they are supposed to represent. Additionally, Roberson herself drafted the scripts that are used for the social work students.

Roberson noted how the use of original scripts and standardized patients allow for her best to assess learning objects as well as test her students’ blind spots. As an example, one of the scenarios students are faced with involves a woman who is conflicted about her sexuality, particularly in relation to her faith.

Students, with the best of intentions, usually end up either pushing the client to fully embrace her lesbianism (something the client did not voice an interest in), or skirt around the issues of sexuality and focus more on her faith. In both instances, students later realize they presented many of their own biases in the session.

“You can never be an expert on diversity,” Roberson explained, which is why students ought to “approach clients with humility”.

The Purple Pill 

With Samford being a Baptist school, concepts of faith and spirituality permeate their programs; while students are not expected to adhere to any specific doctrine, they are trained to evaluate their personal beliefs and how these beliefs are manifested in their behaviors.

Upon being asked how the principles of faith interacted with her academic practices during the pandemic, Roberson explained that the effects of this global stress are certainly showing up in her students—concentration and time management seeming to be the most affected. For this reason, Roberson has reevaluated her personal thoughts on teaching.

Does learning happen by giving someone information, or does it happen more through setting expectations and sharing a journey with someone? Roberson feels as though students flourish most when they are encouraged by the professors that walk in tandem with them. This practice of sharing and accepting the struggles of her students serves as an allegory to one’s relationship with God.

Roberson is far too humble a woman to acknowledge this, but the kind of empathy and commitment she shows her students is certainly of biblical proportions. Through her own faith, she finds strength and perseverance: two traits that radiate from her to encourage her students.

Bissell phrased her admiration of Roberson beautifully: “One of the most meaningful aspects of Doc Rob’s leadership in my experience has been the way she is able to seamlessly balance compassion with academic rigor…Doc Rob has really shaped my experience in the MSW program by holding me to a high standard, but one that is understood to not be a measure of my worth or character. Doc Rob teaches in a way that implicitly points back to the fact that our academic achievement is not indicative of our value as people, and this is a beautiful thing to see demonstrated by someone who I respect so much.”

And it is not just her students who are inspired by her, but her colleagues as well. Lena Plunk, adjunct professor, explained, “I know that if I have a question about anything or just need to talk through something with her, she will be ready to listen and give advice. She is encouraging and supportive as always…her influence in my life has been great and has had an impact on many levels, both personally and professionally.”

By practicing what she preaches, Roberson seems to have “taken” the purple pill. She is fully aware of and invested in the struggles that come with the world, but she focuses on finding the positivity of any situation; her ability to see opportunities of soul-growth in any pain, in addition to her willingness to sit in that pain with her clients and students, are the things normally only found in gospels.

About the Author
Cassidy Clevenger is a Samford University alum. After earning her BA in Psychology, she studied Gerontology at Georgia State, and is back at Samford finishing her MSW while working as a staff writer for PUPN Magazine.