Artificial Intelligence and Social Work

Introduction

Social Work and related professions have the potential to experience rapid change and growth in the future as technology advances and the population changes. This is especially true with artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) describes a range of technologies that allow machines or computers to make decisions that are normally made by human beings.

Emotional Support Technology

Perhaps the first attempt at emotional support using a computer was the ELIZA software created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1964. Through pattern matching the software was able to respond with empathy statements and open-ended questions to keep the conversation going.

Modern options include XiaoIce (Zhao, et. al., 2018). As the authors describe,

The primary design goal of XiaoIce is to be an AI companion with which users form long-term, emotional connections. Being able to establish such long-term relationships with human users as an open-domain social chatbot distinguishes XiaoIce from not only early social chatbots but also other recently developed conversational AI personal assistants such as Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana.

Another example includes Replika, which recently released its source code as open-source. As these technologies get more advanced they may play a more important role in our emotional support options for people who are struggling with loneliness.

Digital Psychotherapy

Digital psychotherapy options include online and electronic therapy options. One example is Electronic CBT for Insomnia (Espie, et. al., 2018) which was a rich-media web application that participants used to receive cognitive behavioral therapy via the internet, and Whiteside et. al. (2014) which studied the program Thrive:

Thrive is similar to programs used in successful trials of Internet-delivered CBT; the Thrive interface is interactive and its curriculum is adaptive to patient input. […] Thrive includes three CBT-based modules that are based on behavioral activation, cognitive restructuring, and social skills training techniques

While these programs are currently not utilizing much artificial intelligence, in the future we may see them adapting to the client’s progress and altering the curriculum in ways that will increase efficacy or completion rates.

As CBT programs become more researched and advance we should see more of these appearing. As Whiteside notes, these programs are significantly cheaper to deliver (using a fully automated or a paraprofessional “coach” model rather than delivering full therapy) and so may represent an increasingly common option for therapists.

Decision-Making Tools

Decision-making tools are potentially the most exciting use of technology and artificial intelligence. An example of where this technology has been helpful is in child protection work in England. (Pegg & McIntyre, 2018)

We may see AI being used in the future to help us integrate the hundreds of variables found in child protection assessments and files to increase our success rates and improve risk assessments. Certainly, we can’t replace humans in this incredibly careful work (just like in suicide risk assessment) but we can use these tools to augment our understanding of child protection and decrease the lag between learning things in research and applying them in practice.

Conclusion

Artificial intelligence has the potential to improve our lives by providing more emotional support to those who are lonely, providing digital psychotherapy and decision-support tools to improve child protection and other social work fields.

References

Espie, C.A., Kyle, S.D., Williams, C., Ong, J.C., Douglas, N.J., Hames, P., Brown, J.S.L. (2012) JAMA Psychiatry. Retrieved from https://www.jwatch.org/na47591/2018/09/28/electronic-cbt-insomnia

Pegg, D. & McIntyre, N. (2018) Child abuse algorithms: from science fiction to cost-cutting reality. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/16/child-abuse-algorithms-from-science-fiction-to-cost-cutting-reality

Weizenbaum, Joseph (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company. pp. 2, 3, 6, 182, 189. ISBN 0-7167-0464-1.

Whiteside, U., Richards, J., Steinfeld, B., Simon, G., Caka, S., Tachibana, C., Stuckey, S., … Ludman, E. (2014). Online cognitive behavioral therapy for depressed primary care patients: a pilot feasibility project. The Permanente journal18(2), 21-7.

Zhou, L., Gao, J., Li, D. & Heung-Yeung, S. (2018) The Design and Implementation of XiaoIce, an Empathetic Social Chatbot. Journal of Human and Computer Interaction.

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William Penn University Human Services Program

Introduction

William Penn University is a private university located in Oskaloosa, IA. They first came to my attention when I moved to Iowa because they have a Human Services program. I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Human Services from Athabasca University in 2018 but at the time I moved I wasn’t finished yet and wanted to make sure I had evaluated my options.

Unfortunately my experience with the William Penn faculty has been poor to date, and I would not recommend the university or their Human Services program.

The university makes the claim that:

the Human Services program presents our majors with the interdisciplinary perspective required of those desiring to provide human and social services to individuals and communities. The program curriculum fosters the development of knowledge, skills, and experiences required of professionals who work in public and private human services agencies and organizations.

I’m not convinced.

The core courses look pretty standard:

  • PSYC 108 Life-Span Psychology
  • PSYC 221 Introduction to Counseling
  • PSYC 331 Human Services in Contemporary America
  • PSYC 348 Crisis Intervention
  • SOCI 123 Sociology of Contemporary Issues
  • SOCI 217 Ethnic and Race Relations or
  • SOCI 219 Sex and Gender in Society
  • SOCI 220 Social Organization
  • SOCI 335 Social Research Methods
  • KINS 231 Substance Abuse
  • KINS 208 Leadership in Sport, Exercise, and Recreation or
  • KINS 210 Camp Management and Outdoor Education or
  • KINS 336 Organization and Administration of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER)

And some elective options:

  • KINS 334 Tests & Measurements in Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER)
  • PSYC 240 Health Psychology
  • PSYC 305 Theories and Systems of Counseling
  • PSYC 322 Multicultural Counseling Approaches
  • PSYC 326 Abnormal Psychology
  • SOCI 211 Introduction to Criminology
  • SOCI 218 Juvenile Delinquency
  • SOCI 311 Marriage and Family

Additionally there is a practicum. A few things stick out to me: the department of Kinesiology offering the course in Substance Abuse seems a little odd. And requiring a course in “Leadership in Sport, Exercise, and Recreation” or similar just smacks of not having a diverse enough course offering to actually make a course relevant to Human Services.

PSYC348 Crisis Intervention

If you were hoping to find the syllabus for the PSYC348 Crisis Intervention course at William Penn University (WPU) you’ll be disappointed. I reached out to Sarah Tarbell at William Penn University, who told me she hadn’t taught the course in 3 years. I also reached out to Professor Michael O. Johnston, one of the two faculty members listed on the WPU Human Services website. No response. I sent a second follow up. No response.

Michael Collins, the “Social and Behavioral Sciences Division Chair” didn’t respond to repeated phone calls or emails, even though I spoke to him and he told me he would provide me with a copy of the syllabus, about summing up my experience with WPU. He and Professor Johnston are Sociologists, so I strongly question whether they are able to teach human services courses effectively.

Interestingly, the WPU website doesn’t even list faculty for the PSYC 348 Crisis Intervention course, making me wonder if they no longer teach it. You can’t become an effective human services practitioner if you don’t have basic training in crisis intervention.

A good crisis intervention course will include:

  • How to identify individuals in crisis
  • Models or theories of crisis intervention
  • Intervention techniques for different situations
  • Practical demonstrations or roleplays of crisis intervention
  • Basic suicide assessment and intervention

But I can’t be certain the WPU course includes these elements. You can read my evaluation of the human services curriculum at other schools.

Conclusion

While William Penn appears to have a weak Human Services program, you might find programs offered by other colleges like the University of Iowa a better fit. The tuition at WPU is also ridiculously high, at $25,000 per year. You could get an entire degree for that from a better school!

I would skip WPU and complete an Associates in Social Work at a community college like Indian Hills before completing an online Bachelor’s degree instead.

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Introduction to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)

Introduction

Does your organization have an Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)? Have you ever considered being part of one or using the one available at your organization? Read on to learn more about these common workplace benefits and how they can be helpful to you as a social services worker or a practicing counsellor.

EAP are fairly common in larger organizations, according to the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA, n.d.):

In the US, over 97% of companies with more than 5,000 employees have EAPs. 80% of companies with 1,001 – 5,000 employees have EAPs. 75% of companies with 251 – 1,000 employees have EAPs

Despite their commonness, there are a number of articles out there discussing the notion that many employees actually fail to take advantage of the services provided by these supports. For example, Barrett (n.d.) says that only 3-5% of UK employees with access to an EAP actually use one. A Psychology Today article discussing the US landscape (Albrecht, 2014) titled “Why Don’t Employees Use EAP Services?” the author notes four barriers to employees utilizing EAP supports:

  1. They (mistakenly) don’t think it’s confidential
  2. They feel there is a stigma for accessing supports
  3. They think (mistakenly) that they need permission
  4. They don’t know the EAP exists

These barriers will need to be overcome if an organization is to see their EAP become a successful part of their benefits program.

Services Offered by EAP

There are numerous services offered by different EAP providers. For example, some of the services offered by LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell include:

  • Counselling
  • Financial Consultation
  • Legal Consultation
  • Life Coaching
  • Research

I’ll discuss some of these benefits below.

Counselling

Counselling is the resource we think of most commonly when we think of an EAP. Telephone counselling is the most popular model of delivery for this support but some EAP providers have moved to video counselling or even providing in-person counselling at a contracted rate.

This counselling support is short-term and solution-focused so that clients are given a handful of sessions in order to work on a defined goal with that counsellor. This can be especially helpful for situational events (grief, trauma, life transitions) where some extra support can help you bridge the gap.

This can be one of the most useful benefits offered by an EAP given that there is often no charge for those sessions when compared to health insurance – if your needs fit within the short-term model.

Financial Consultation

Financial consultation can be very useful for employees who are struggling with debt, bankruptcy, credit issues or even seeking investment advice. While a financial counsellor or financial planner can’t tell you what to do with your money they can help you understand the range of options available to you and give you some knowledge to help you make decisions more effectively.

Legal Consultation

Lawyers can be expensive, and although some offer free consultation you often don’t even know where to begin to locate one. Some EAPs offer legal consultation services that help you understand the gist of a legal issue and give you some awareness of things to keep in mind.

Because of conflict of interest rules, legal supports may not be able to help you with employment-related matters or if you’ve already retained an attorney – but it’s worth a shot.

Life Coaching

Life coaching is a service to help you make a plan for handling a future event. It’s a forward-looking, goal-oriented process that focuses more on behavior and less on the emotional content of a situation like in counselling.

Health Coaching is an example of specialized Life Coaching that might help you deal with weight management, stress management or quitting smoking by acting as a “cheerleader” and helping you on your road to accomplishing these goals.

Research

Research is a benefit offered by some EAPs where if you’re looking for resources like childcare they can help you locate providers in your community that are able to provide this support to you. This can help you navigate the web of services around you and better prepare yourself.

Advantages of Using an EAP

EAP services are designed to help reduce absenteeism and improve employee performance by helping you deal with personal problems (or sometimes work-related problems) through a confidential service separate from your employer.

By receiving some short-term counselling or other support you can improve your productivity and prevent yourself from needing leave or other time off. This helps both you and the company save money, save time and better enjoy your work.

A literature review discussing the benefits of EAP services in the burgeoning Indian corporate world noted “It is seen that such programs offer benefits in preventing distress among employees and also help them become more resilient to adverse situations.” (Betti, Jutta & Gujral, 2018)

Another study exploring the changes experienced by employees in South Africa who received substance abuse treatment through the EAP found that they appreciated it as a “vehicle for change.” (Soeker, et. al., 2016)

The participants shared a sense of accomplishment and they also valued the tools they acquired in the program and how it positively changed their lives. EAP changed the participants’ lives. EAP improved their work performance as well as behavior at the workplace. Participants felt empowered after attending the EAP. The different categories expressed how EAP brought about a positive change in the participants’ lives.

 

Working for an EAP

If you’re a social worker, counsellor or therapist you may have considered working for an EAP as well. Generally counselling provided by an EAP is provided over the phone. The pace is fast but the work is exciting and varied and you can learn a lot about different clients. This is especially useful if you’re in the early part of your career and would like to get your licensure.

Conclusion

The EAP Industry continues to expand. There is an opportunity for researchers to learn more about EAPs and how to make them effective. There are opportunities for individuals to access EAPs in order to improve their wellness and of helping professionals of all stripes to consider joining an EAP as a counsellor in order to increase their skills in providing crisis intervention, telephone support and brief solution-focused counselling.

Bibliography

Albrecht, S. (2014) Why Don’t Employees Use EAP Services? Psychology Today.

Barrett, P. (n.d.) The EAP gap. The Wellbeing Pulse. Retrieved on Feb 6 2019 from https://thewellbeingpulse.com/the-eap-gap/

International Employee Assistance Professionals Association. (n.d.) “International Employee Assistance Professionals Association Publications / Resources > FAQs” Retrieved on Feb 6 2019 from http://www.eapassn.org/FAQs

Soeker, S., Matimba, T., Machingura, L., Msimango, H., Moswaane, B., & Tom, S. (2016). The challenges that employees who abuse substances experience when returning to work after completion of employee assistance programme (EAP). Work53(3), 569–584. https://0-doi-org.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/10.3233/WOR-152230

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How to be an Effective Board Member

Introduction

Becoming a Board Member is a big responsibility and a big accomplishment. This is doubly so if you are young, given that less than 2% of Board Members are under 30 in the United States! The benefits of Board Membership are numerous, including giving you new professional and personal networking opportunities, professional skill development and spiritually – knowing that you are supporting an organization’s growth and development, especially if you are a nonprofit Board Member.

On the other hand, the skills that make someone an effective Board Member do not come naturally. While some organizations have formal Board of Directors training programs, not all do. Read on to learn about the skills required of effective Board Members.

Understand the Role of the Board

The role of the Board of Directors is to set the organization’s strategic direction, assess risks and threats to the organization, plan for the future and to make corrections in order to keep the organization on track. Additionally, the Board of Directors hires the Chief Executive (either the CEO or the Executive Director, occasionally the President) and sets the metrics that are used to evaluate that individual.

The Board is responsible for governance and leadership, but not for the day-to-day operational activities of the organization. This is something new Board Members sometimes struggle with. Your role is to make sure that the Executive Director has the tools they need to achieve the metrics, but they will ultimately decide how best to carry out these goals.

For instance, your strategic plan might include increasing your revenue by 10%. The Executive will be responsible for carrying this out (though the Board is an important contributor to fundraising and finance.) So, you might help by setting up meetings with people in your network or by participating in fundraising events but it would be inappropriate to tell the Executive Director to plan a certain event or direct the way in which they raise the revenue by 10%.

The organizational flow is from customers or clients, to the staff, to the Executive Director or CEO, and finally the Board. If this chain of command gets disrupted, you will have issues. It is important to strike a balance between minimizing risks and maximizing opportunities – because these concepts are in constant conflict.

Perform Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is the process of setting the strategic priorities of the organization. This involves figuring out where you want the organization to go and then to set in place concrete strategies, goals, and ideas in order to decide the future of the organization.

Strategic planning models can be used to help you identify where the organization is right now and where you would like to be. One example is the model presented by OnStrategy, that includes 4 phases:

  1. Determine Position
  2. Develop Strategy
  3. Build the Plan
  4. Manage Performance

You can see my article on Basic Strategic Planning for Nonprofits to help you learn more about the nuts-and-bolts of strategic planning.

 

Hire and Evaluate the Executive Director

Hiring the Executive Director is one of the most challenging aspects of a Board of Directors. The Executive makes a huge impact on the overall success of the organization and choosing the wrong Executive can seriously impede progress to your goals.

One barrier that makes choosing Executives difficult is that many Board Members are mid-level or senior members of their own organizations but have not held that role themselves. This makes sense, given the number of organizations out there – only one Executive can exist at each one. If you’re hiring for a role you’ve never held yourself, the possibility exists that you will select someone based on the wrong criteria.

To avoid this, make sure that you ask behaviorally-based questions that get at the heart of the activities you need your Executive to do, and captures the essence of the job. For example,

  • Tell me about a time when you had to manage a large fundraising project
  • What would you change about our organization over the next 12 months?
  • What is your approach to handling conflict?

You should also share the Key Performance Indicators and the Strategic Plan (if it is public) with potential Executive Directors because these are the metrics you will be evaluating your Executive Director on. Their goals should align with your Board’s goals.

Manage Organizational Risks

Risk management means identifying the potential threats to the organization and then taking steps in order to mitigate their risks. This will be different depending on what your organization does, but some common threads will run through all nonprofit organizations.

For example:

  • Your funding comes from one primary funder. What happens if the funder winds up or stops funding you?
  • One staff member has critical competencies that if you lost, would affect the missing. How do you respond?
  • One of your most important programs has no competitors. What happens if a competing organization starts working in the same space as you?

Identifying these risks on a regular basis will help your organization to respond to them. As the Board, you will not direct the Executive Director how to respond to these risks, but together a collaborative plan can be put in place to make sure an effective response is developed.

Board Members are legally responsible, with a fiduciary duty, for the success of the organization. This means that if the organization gets sued, the Board Members (if they don’t have Errors & Omissions insurance) could be held personally liable for the debts of the organization.

Approve the Budget

Determining the budget of the organization is one of the most important jobs the Board has. In addition to creating the budget (usually based on the previous year’s budget, expected revenues and other data), the Board must also ensure the organization is staying within the budget.

Each meeting, you will review the financial statements in order to discuss where you are above or below the budget. This will help avoid a sudden cash crisis.

Participate in Fundraising

Board Members should be participating in fundraising to help the organization succeed. This can include helping to run fundraising events, providing access to a network of contacts (especially if you are a mid-level or senior-level member of your industry) or otherwise helping the organization to bring in some revenue.

Perform Effective Governance

Governance is the “command and control” or “checks and balances” part of the Board Member role. Good governance includes both the role of the Board of Directors and the organization at large. You’ll perform good governance by making sure the strategic plan is up to date and being reviewed regularly, approving and discussing the budget, and also by creating and enforcing policies and procedures.

Policies and procedures are the rules that set the conduct of both the Board Members themselves, but also of the volunteers, staff, and others in the organization. Examples of policies and procedures that are important for good governance include:

Meeting Attendance. Your Board Members should be required to regularly attend meetings. If they are unable to meet this requirement, they should resign from the Board in order to allow that spot to be filled by someone who is more available to commit to the Board’s requirements.

Term Limits. Most Boards have one or two-year terms, which ensures regular turnover and assessment of who is an effective and high-performer on the Board and who is not. This helps keep the organization fresh and energetic, while also benefiting from the experience and expertise of long-term Board Members.

  • Budget Approval. There should be a formal policy about how often and when the budget is approved. It should be approved at least on a yearly basis, and then reviewed more regularly than that to ensure that the organization is staying within their financial means.
  • Conflict of Interest. A Conflict of Interest policy helps ensure that Board Members do not let their personal interests interfere with those of the organization. For example, if a nonprofit is seeking a facilities management contract, a Board Member who owns a facilities management company should not vote on (or potentially even be present during the session) where the picking of a company is decided on.
  • Auditing. It’s important that organizations receive regular audits, and a policy may be written to ensure the organization seeks regular audits based on the size of the organization. Larger organizations may be required to receive an audit yearly, while smaller organizations may want to get one in order to ensure they are eligible to apply for grants and other forms of fundraising.
  • Board Evaluation. A self-assessment of the Board can help Board Members identify their strengths and weaknesses so they can make changes in the future. Every year or two may be a good frequency for this activity.
  • Board Orientation. Like a Board Evaluation policy, a Board Orientation policy should set out the procedure for orienting new Board Members to the organization so that they can hit the ground running.
  • Review and Writing of Bylaws. Bylaws are the policies and procedures that govern the organization, including things like what are the names, terms, and appointment process for the Officers (President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer) and other elements. These bylaws should be reviewed regularly.
  • Personal Giving. Finally, some organizations choose to have a Personal Giving policy that expresses the organization’s wish that nonprofit Board Members participate in fundraising for the organization or make their own annual gift to the organization.

Conclusion

These are a few of the many elements that go into an effective Board Member. Are there elements you think I’ve missed? Do you weigh technical skills or interpersonal skills more strongly in an effective Board Member? Let me know in the comments.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2019), "How to be an Effective Board Member," retrieved on June 26, 2019 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/effective-board-member/.
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Scales of Measurement

Introduction

This post is part of a series I’ve been chipping away at, where I teach basic statistics and probability. The other posts in the series include:

Variables are the outcomes of a psychological measurement. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics notes, a variable is “any characteristics, number, or quantity that can be measured or counted.” Also called data items, they are called variables because the “value may vary” and may change over time.

There are four scales of measurement used to distinguish variables:

  • Nominal/Categorical
  • Ordinal
  • Interval
  • Ratio

Nominal Variables

Nominal variables are those that separate a value into different categories. Examples of nominal variables are gender (male, female, other) or type of transportation (car, bus, train). These are categories and have no intrinsic value that allows them to be compared on their own.

Ordinal Variables

Ordinal variables are similar to nominal variables but they are ranked. These are like nominal variables but they are ranked. One example of an ordinal variable is educational achievement. A scale might look like this:

  • Less than a high school diploma
  • High school or GED
  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Graduate or first professional degree
  • Doctorate degree

These can be ranked from least education to most education, but there is no way to tell necessarily how much “more” education a Bachelor’s degree is when compared to a graduate or professional degree.

Interval Variables

An interval variable is an ordinal variable where the different items are evenly spaced. For example, income level:

  • $0-4,999
  • $5,000-9,999
  • 10,000-14,999
  • 15,000-20,000

Each one of these is evenly spaced. There must be a continuum to measure an interval variable.

Ratio Variables

Ratio variables are like interval variables but with the notable exception that “0” indicates an absence of the value. For example, in our previous example income level happens to mean no money. If we look at temperature however, 0 degrees Celsius does not mean there is no temperature. This makes Celsius an Interval Variable.

On the other hand, Kelvin is a ratio variable because 0 Kelvin really means no heat or temperature at all (as we say, absolute zero.)

Continuous vs. Discrete Variables

One more distinction is the difference between continuous and discrete variables. Continuous variables are those that can take on any value. For example, a variable that can have any number between 10 and 11 (10.48938, 10.74982, 10.9999) is continuous.

If the survey only has two values with with nothing in between (like 10 or 11) then this is a discrete variable, also known as an integer.

Why Separate Variables into Categories

It’s important to understand whether the variables we are working with are nominal, ordinal, interval, ratio, because we’ll use different statistical tests when working with different data. Coding, and other manipulations and processing of the data may also differ depending on the variable.

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