Perspectives from social work education and practice on AI

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As Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its language tools, such as ChatGPT, evolve and become mainstream, there are plenty of questions and concerns that accompany them. Many industries and organizations are looking into incorporating AI into their work in an ethical manner, including higher education.

Assistant Professor Johanna Creswell Báez in the College of Public Service (CPS) explores the possibilities of AI in social work, along with co-authors Jonathan B. Singer, Professor at Loyola University of Chicago, and Juan A. Rios, Assistant Professor of Seton Hall University, in their recent publication “AI Creates the Message: Integrating AI Language Learning Models into Social Work Education and Practice.” As part of Singer and Báez’s work as leaders in the national American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare (AASWSW) Grand Challenges for Social Work to “Harness Technology for Social Good” they provide a brief primer on AI, ways for faculty and students to embrace and use ChatGPT as a tool and ideas for discussing AI in your syllabus, along with acknowledging the current limitation of AI in education.

AI and ChatGPT come with potential alarming consequences such as plagiarism risks, implicit bias and job displacement, but they also offer benefits like reducing human error and increasing output and processing speed through familiar features like voice assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, and predictive text. Additionally, AI could be crucial in education and several institutions are taking the approach of utilizing AI, especially the subfield natural language processing (NLP), by adding it to their curricula. These systems use algorithms to understand, interpret and create human language and can “help as a tool to support some of these processes and assist social workers in identifying patterns, trends, and potential solutions.”

Singer, Báez and Rios not only argue AI and NLP should be integrated into education and social work and that “it’s time for social work educators to play a greater role in teaching, learning, developing, and researching AI technologies,” but they also offer suggestions for it to be used as tools for both faculty and students.

For example, faculty could use AI and for creating class material. As the researchers state, “faculty have limited time and resources to update and tailor educational materials. ChatGPT has unlimited time and resources to create resources for various specialized areas or subgroups, explain and provide a breakdown on the material, create scenarios of potential outcomes of designed thinking, and collectively worldbuild.”

Editing manuscripts is another possibility. The authors note that “ChatGPT can be asked via a prompt to update sentences or paragraphs for grammar and style. A sentence could easily be updated into the active voice, or you could ask it to update the sentence to be more persuasive. We have found ourselves using ChatGPT more and more as our personal editor or to double-check the grammar and style for sentences.”

Other suggestions included using AI to develop and revise a syllabus, for editing manuscripts and writing dialog.

Singer, Báez and Rios also include ways that students in social work can use AI as a tool, like increasing their understanding of vital social work concepts. As they mentioned, “ChatGPT can be used to augment learning in the classroom, such as providing definitions and ways to explore through chat prompts key concepts and theories in social work” or to generate project ideas, stating “prompts can help assist students with literature review searches, by helping to identify gaps in the research and relevant sources.”

While the authors advocate for assimilating AI into social work, they also recognize its limitations and emphasize the need for including how it will be used in syllabi, saying “the syllabi should specify how the technology will be used during the course, as well as any applicable constraints. This transparency allows students to comprehend what is expected of them and facilitates clear communication between student and instructor.”

Additionally, the authors acknowledge that AI has limitations and is imperfect, stating that it can give incorrect answers, does not guarantee privacy or confidentiality and may reflect the biases of its data set. The article notes “the technology is simply a tool to improve our efficiency and effectiveness, not a cure-all for practice or education issues” and “the effectiveness of this tool depends on our ability to think creatively, ethically, and divergently, and how well we integrate it into our thinking.”

Despite these, Singer, Báez and Rios are firm that AI needs to be responsibly integrated into social work education and practice, and those learning and working in the field must take advantage of the values it provides while recognizing its limits and concerns.

As quoted by the authors, “the bottom line is this: We believe it is unethical for social workers not to learn and teach about technology-mediated social work. With AI poised to transform the way we approach social work, we must embrace this change and work together to ensure that it is used in ways that are ethical, equitable, and socially just.”

Faculty can get ready to talk about AI in class and take steps to get familiar with generative AI tools. For further reading, Báez recommends the short Chronicle of Higher Education article, “4 Steps to Help you Plan for ChatGPT in Your Classroom” and adapting in your classrooms the “Usage Guidelines for AI Generative Tools” developed by College Unbound in the spring of 2023 to support the responsible use of AI in higher education. Additionally, the Faculty Resource Center has more resources on their AI in Academics page.

About the UCCS College of Public Service

The UCCS College of Public Service is one of the premier schools of public administration in the Rocky Mountain West. Its relevant and flexible programs prepare students for leadership in the public and nonprofit sectors, including criminal justice and social work. The College of Public Service offers both traditional and accelerated undergraduate and graduate programs, with options to earn dual degrees and graduate certificates. Learn more about the College of Public Service at UCCS.