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Immersive 360 Video Training Encourages Empathy for Social Workers

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A new research-based 360-degree video training package that encourages effective relationship-based practices in child protection work has officially been launched by the University of Birmingham and Sandwell Children’s Trust.

RIVRT (Research-Informed Virtual Relationship-Based Practice Training) is based on original research and was created by the University of Birmingham with social workers, managers, and young people at Sandwell Children’s Trust. The project uses VR headsets and immersive videos, allowing trainees to follow a social worker’s engagement with a family over 11 months.

The immersive videos present two different versions of the same scenario. This allows trainees to become a “fly on the wall” and examine the subtle changes in actions, body language, tone, and approaches during sensitive encounters, illustrating how these can impact outcomes in child protection work.

The “barrier” and “enabler” versions of the story have different endings. The barrier version sees the family remain on a child protection plan, with the social worker frustrated and the family unhappy, while the enabler version shows the family no longer on a child protection plan and equipped to deal with their circumstances with support.

RIVRT can now be purchased by local authorities across the UK, making it accessible to social workers.

Paul Wareham, senior social worker for Sandwell Children’s Trust Fostering Service, attended the launch event.  He said: “The experience of the VR is ‘the being there’; you almost feel it; it’s not just about what you’re seeing; you’re actually getting the emotional side of it as well.”

Vijay Patel, head of safeguarding at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, said: “I liked the demonstrations. I think they are a really good way of experiencing what practice might look like and feel like from a social worker’s perspective and also understanding different perspectives for parents and children.”

“I think the training videos are invaluable for newly qualified social workers and students, especially if they haven’t had a lot of experience with challenging behaviours and challenging language. It’s also a very good tool for experienced social workers because we can always learn, and seeing somebody else might make you say, ‘oh, hang on, I do that’, or ‘hang on, I should be doing that’. I think it can be helpful for any practitioner at any point in their career.”

Dr Tarsem Singh Cooner, associate professor of social work at the University of Birmingham, who led the project, said: “We have found that social workers who use the immersive video training feel the emotion and tone in the scenes and develop a level of empathy with both the social worker and the family in the videos. This allows them to understand the importance of developing good relationships to enable positive changes in practice.”

The findings from the evaluation of this approach, published in The Social Work Education Journalasked trainees if they disagreed or agreed with the following statements on a scale of 1–10:

  • I could empathise with the social worker in the 360-degree films.
  • I could empathise with the manager in the 360-degree films.
  • I could empathise with the members of the family (service users) in the 360-degree films.

The statements scored a mean of 9, 8.67, and 9.52, respectively. The study also found that empathy was felt most strongly when using the immersive training when compared to emotions such as worry and nervousness.

The study concludes that the immersive nature of the training videos, using realistic scenarios, scripts, settings, 360 videos, and VR headsets, allowed users to feel empathy. One user in the study commented: “I literally felt myself clenching my fists and having a physical reaction at points during the barrier videos because of how the family were being spoken to.”

Immersive learning is an emerging field in social work training.  It is based on the principles of process modelling, which say that people can learn by imitating specific, observable behaviours and by observing others rather than through direct experience.

Dr Cooner explained: “We took great care to ensure authenticity in the scripts by involving young people who had experience of social work involvement to ensure the voices of the service users were present. Experienced social workers were able to convey a level of realism that may not have been possible using other actors.

Following the successful results shown in our research, I am thrilled that today this training will officially be accessible for social workers to use, hopefully improving interactions and relationships between social workers and families who need support.”

Dr Cooner has been supported by the University of Birmingham Enterprise, which advised on sustainable routes to make this approach for training social workers more widely available.

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