What do the words “social worker” mean to you? Whatever thoughts come to mind will be largely informed by personal experiences, social and cultural background and popular culture references.

Unfortunately, social services are not always depicted in a positive light in popular culture. Social services are often depicted as the big bad wolf, with protagonists complaining that “the social have been round again” or “it’s the social interfering”.

If the majority of people’s knowledge and opinions of social services are largely informed by popular culture and pop culture depicts social services as a meddling nuisance, how are social workers meant to engage people in a positive way?

The key to any successful relationship is effective communication; how then, can social workers communicate effectively with service users, if the service user is already defensive due to misconceptions surrounding social work?

A complex question, to which there is no one, clear answer but mastering the artistry of the human interaction, between service user and social worker, is certainly a good place to start. Human interaction however, is an experience, so how can this experience be taught? You can read about an experience but that doesn’t mean that you will be able to replicate it effectively. A perfect example of this, is an egg and spoon race. You can read about how to win an egg and spoon race, simply hold the egg on the spoon and run to the finish line. However, the experience; balancing the egg on the spoon is a skill, one which you can not attain simply by reading about it, you have to feel the egg on the spoon to gain the skill. The same applies for human interaction, particularly in social work. How do you engage with someone who abuses substances or someone who is experiencing postnatal depression (for example) if you have no experience in the area?  The leading universities offering courses in social work, try to solve this problem with a combination of practice placement and service user and carer involvement (SUCI).

Members of the SUCI help with the design and delivery of the courses and allow students the opportunity to ask questions about the service users and carers experiences. This of course is not without merit; however, this is arguably still research as opposed to practical experience.

How do you teach a practice-based vocation? This is not a new issue for educational establishments. According to Instructional-design theories and models, a new paradigm of instructional theory:

“The most important problem with traditional learning methods is that (children) are not learning skills; teaching is more concentrated on imparting factual knowledge to students”.

What is knowledge without context? It becomes an unused relic, something interesting, learnt yesteryear, that when not applied, is eventually forgotten. By linking the theoretical and the pragmatic, by applying knowledge to experience, valuable information is more likely to be committed to long term memory and this is where the real learning takes place. If I practice balancing the egg on the spoon, I will be able to recall what it felt like when I start the race, I’ll apply the skill of balancing the egg that I learnt previously, by doing so.

Universities offering under graduate courses in social work, try to employ this theory by offering practice placements in their second and third years. During these practice placements, novice social workers meet families and adults who are often vulnerable, in crisis or suffering from mental health issues. Would be social workers are in direct contact with these people, who are essentially exposed, like a raw nerve. One wrong word or misinterpreted look could be extremely damaging and could have a long term detrimental impact on all involved. There are of course safeguards in place on the practice placements as the trainees are certainly not fully fledged, however those safeguards, are the very thing that prevents the experience from being truly realistic and thus fully preparing the trainee for the job role.

How then can trainee social workers gain the vital experience necessary to prepare them for life in the working world? The combination of theory and practice is the solution and virtual reality training is a platform with the ability to facilitate this type of learning.

Virtual reality as a training tool is not a new concept, with the first flight simulator developed in the 1920’s. Technological advancements in this area have allowed huge leaps forward and has seen the application of VR in many areas including the military, healthcare, construction and sport to name a few. So how can virtual reality plug the gap between the practical and the theoretical for social workers?

Developments in virtual reality allows participants to enter a virtual environment and interact with avatars, which are able to replicate people, situations and experiences social workers will encounter when qualified. One of the products able to facilitate this type of learning experience is C-Live.

C-Live has access to up to twenty-seven different avatars, which come in a variety of ages and ethnicities. The beauty of this product is that the avatars are operated live, in real time, by an actor. C-Live scenarios allow the user to enter a virtual world, with one actor (aided by voice morphing software) playing multiple roles in the virtual reality environment. This allows for a consistency and synergy simply not available in other forms of role play. For example, in a neglect simulation, the actor (also known as the simulation specialist) is be able to play the neighbour who made the call to social services, the parents the child lives with and the child in question, to name but a few possibilities.

The key feature of this piece of VR equipment is the facilitation of human interaction. The responses feel real because they are real human responses delivered by the actor. This software gives the participant experience, the necessary experience to develop the skills vital for their role. Imagine the benefits to a trainee social worker, for example, who may never have interacted with someone with dementia, Alzheimer’s or a special educational need. Avatars are able to realistically replicate characteristics consistent with the conditions, which in turn, allows those without any experience in this field to gain it.