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Social work role-playing goes virtual through partnership with UT Rio Grande Valley

August 05, 2019

Contact: Brittney Dabney, Office of Communications, Public Realtions and Marketing

Student sitting at desk looking at wall monitor
Student watches simulator.

The Department of Social Work in Tuskegee University’s College of Arts and Sciences is partnering with the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley to test out a new professional learning tool that takes virtual reality to the next level.

For years, social work students have had to rely on role-playing with their peers to sharpen their client-engagement, interview, and assessment skills. Through this new partnership, however, Tuskegee students will begin testing out a virtual reality simulator designed specifically for social work education, which is competency-based, to assess their level of competency necessary to practice within the profession

According to Dr. April Jones, who serves as head of the Department of Social Work, the mixed reality virtual simulations will enhance a majority of the university’s social work courses, not to mention allow the students to practice their direct and indirect intervention skills and acquire better insight into the social work professional roles, guiding principles, and the importance of evidence-based practice prior to or in conjunction with their field placements.

“The simulations go beyond interactions with an individual client — it can be programmed to host interactions with groups, families or individuals of all ages and psycho-social challenges, as well as in a variety of community or organizational settings,” she explained. “This form of educational technology will help students develop their critical thinking skills and interpersonal skills, while allowing them to make mistakes in a low-risk environment without detriment to the virtual client.”

This VR experience offers a mixed-reality platform that uses a combination of artificial intelligence and live actors to deliver powerful simulations. In these scenarios, avatars simulate the most challenging professional exchanges that social workers confront every day in their work. Jones said the avatars are in fact trained professionals with a master’s or Ph.D., and some are licensed in social work or psychology along with being trained actors and actresses.

Simulations can be replayed, thereby giving students the opportunity to evaluate their performance and develop their skills further. Elements to be added in this version of the simulation include a client “blow-up,” in which the avatar yells at the group leader, and a scenario in which the student must read a client’s nonverbal communication to best assess the situation.

“Having trained avatars are a plus because they debrief the students and tell them about their positive interactions and needs for improvement — in addition to the faculty feedback and peer ratings students also receive,” Jones explained. “This type of technology and human performance creates a fully immersive and challenging simulation environment where learners are forced to take risks — from which they can learn how to improve their day-to-day performance.”

Students Alyssa Taylor and Burnadette Coulman both senior social work majors, agreed that having this type of educational tool in the classroom in beneficial.

“I’m excited about using this tool, because it will help me ask more open-ended questions, as it relates to getting to know my clients better,” said Taylor.

“Using a virtual reality simulator gives me a realistic representation of the real world and what to expect in a clinical setting,” explained Coulman. “Using VR, will help me better prepare myself on how to assess a client’s needs post trauma. 

College of Arts and Sciences dean, Dr. Channa Prakash, said that the college is exploring ways to integrate virtual and artificial reality into more of the university’s courses.

“We are starting to employ VR and AR into our classrooms, which is really going to drive and diversify how our students learn,” he explained. “Having these tools in a variety of our courses will offer our students an amazing immersive environment that will foster enhanced learning, not to mention experience with this technology — experience that future high-tech, high-touch careers will demand.”

Though the virtual learning tool is still in its infancy, Jones plans to make it a part of the social work curriculum. She ultimately would like for the simulations to be able to guide the students through a VR environment, using the Oculus Rift S headsets, for a fully immersive 3D simulation learning experience with the student entering the client environment (e.g. home visit) to recreate lifelike experiences as an active operator of interactive content (i.e. inspecting the home for child safety), as well as see students put their critical thinking skills and interpersonal skills in action.

To learn more about Tuskegee University’s Social Work Department visit

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