An Interactive OnLine Platform for students and Practitioners of Social Work in Serbia and the wider region

Slavica Milojevic, FPN KONEKTAS

FPN KonekTaS is an interactive online platform that brings together practitioners, teachers and students of social work and social policy in Serbia to share new theoretical and practical knowledge, professional experiences and dilemmas and strategies for overcoming obstacles caused by COVID 19, but also in their everyday work.

At the beginning of April 2020, when we all have got convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to disrupt even more the environments in which social service users and social care beneficiaries live, and to have several negative consequences for their well-being and protection, the need for united activities of all social actors became imperative.

Along with information on the scale of the pandemic and its impact on socially vulnerable individuals and groups, information on the additional workload of social services providers in this situation has become evident. Namely, an increased demand put on the professionals in the social welfare system in the current situation to ensure health care and safety at the same time for themselves and for their beneficiaries, made them vulnerable too. In such circumstances, the feeling of helplessness began to spread rapidly and threatened to jeopardize the quality of professional work. This is particularly important within the ongoing efforts and some of the challenges the system and professionals are facing in relation to their already limited resources to perform in a timely and high quality manner.

As expected, adversity brings people together and encourages innovative solutions to overcome the problems that communities are faced with. Proactive approaches to addressing the needs and problems of particularly vulnerable groups have begun to emerge in all sectors and at all levels.

Among the first initiatives that have been raised in order to offer an integrated answer on growing problems caused by COVID-19, was the initiative from the Faculty of Political Science – Department of Social Policy and Social Work in Belgrade.  By gaining insight into the intentions of both students and professors to get involved as volunteers in fighting COVID-19, three social work practice instructors together with professors and associates decided to organize a Voluntary Service.

The starting idea was to invite all students and teachers willing to be engaged in the activities aimed to support social welfare professionals in all the activities addressing problems caused by the pandemic. Due to the circumstances of the pandemic, it was decided to organize an online resource, which will offer information and opportunities for volunteering in accordance with all the social work professional principles as well as other aspects of maintaining personal and collective health security.

The idea was widely supported, and so FPN KonekTaS was established in collaboration with UNICEF and with the financial support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The very first activity was conducting a survey to get insights into the needs of communities of practitioners in the social protection system for necessary services in an unprecedented situation. The survey results have shown the common need for stronger cooperation among all of us involved in social welfare in Serbia. A mapping of local initiatives created in response to the pandemic followed, and all relevant services and contacts were posted on the platform. Meanwhile, social work students have been engaged in continuous needs assessment for psycho-social and other support for social service workforce during the pandemic.

The data obtained through the survey, mapping and interviews with colleagues in the field, indicated that practitioners need to connect with other colleagues, to discuss current issues related to the pandemic, to learn from the experience of others, to hear the results of research, to get acquainted with the latest research, to get familiar with best practices, and to access maps of newly established services that arise in response to the urgent needs of particularly vulnerable social groups. And, most importantly, there was a need for concrete materials for practical and rapid use. Accordingly, we all quickly realized, that social care practitioners in the whole region are faced with similar problems and have a strong need to connect with colleagues from other countries, especially with those speaking the same language and having common professional backgrounds.

That is how the FPN KonekTaS, driven by the needs of a social workers’ community that is online and offline began to grow rapidly from a volunteering platform to a digital destination where social care practitioners in the social welfare system, the academic community and students of social work and social policy can meet and network with colleagues, can ask and get peer support, where they can share ideas and  experiences, and where they can be safe and professionally protected.

Since its beginning in April till the end of July 2020, the FPN KonekTaS platform has gathered over 850 contributors from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, and organized 8 webinars, 5 regional meetings, 10 supervision meetings and 20 discussion groups on the platform. The topics were conceptually oriented towards “helping helpers” and from the beginning they were a response to their originally examined needs. In this sense, the topics covered a wide range of needs: from specific techniques of personal mental health care in stressful situations, through the possibility of emergency care due to domestic violence during the COVID-19 crisis up to webinars on the role of the Red Cross during the COVID-19 crisis. The number of realized interactive activities in these circumstances seems impressive, but the development processes that followed them are actually an occasion for learning and articulating new models.

As resource for practical use for all, there are printable materials posted on the platform, including translations from different sources, such as IFSW Europe – International Federation of Social Workers, EASSW — European Association of Schools of Social Work, The Global Social Service Workforce Alliance, National Bank, etc, as well as different materials of  practical use authored by colleagues from Serbia and the neighbouring countries.

Convinced that we are connected by common goals that guide us in the education of social workers and that our academic activities contribute to improving the competencies and professional credibility of social workers, thus improving the quality of professional work and the quality of services we provide, we are inviting both students and professionals across the region and beyond to cooperate within the joint activities which we organize online through the FPN KonekTaS platform.

To get involved in already planned events or suggest new activities that we could implement together, to the satisfaction of all of us and in the interest of our users, contact us at  konektas@fpn.bg.ac.rs

You can also share information with your students, social work practitioners and teachers: http://www.fpn.bg.ac.rs/konektas.