Child welfare agencies can use mobile computing technologies to their advantage, especially for those in the field. While there are many types of mobile computing technologies, tablet PCs are used by many state child welfare agencies and have proven to be valuable tools for staff.
Tablet PCs are notebook or slate computers that have a touchscreen and allow a use of stylus or digital pen. Because a tablet PC is most often smaller and lighter than the average laptop computer, it can be useful for workers who do home or site visits. The tablet connects to the Internet, but can also use basic applications offline. Some tablet PCs come with docking stations, so that workers can use the same computer in multiple offices.
Because tablets perform much like other computers, most workers do not require extensive training, and appreciate the variety of modes to enter and receive information, including on and offline access, use of the full keyboard or conversion of writing to text, or an on screen keyboard. Tablet PCs may be outfitted with secured wireless internet access, Microsoft office applications, map software, voice recognition dictation software, and computer based recording systems. Workers can view workloads or reports, access case management systems, send and receive e-mail via the internet, or connect digital cameras.
Wisconsin example: Wisconsin had a high turnover of case managers, who cited one reason for resignation as a high demand for documentation and a lack of useful technology. Thus, the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, Division of Children and Family Services gave tablet PCs to frontline workers and case managers in August 2006. The tablet PCs give workers a chance to download information from their SACWIS before going on field visits, input new data while in the field, and upload the new information into the system upon return to the office.
Pros/Cons: This ability to work offline in the field, and then essentially sync the computer with the SACWIS system when in an internet accessible location has proven to be one of the most helpful aspects of the tablet PCs for the child welfare workers. The workers have found that the tablet PCs allow use of most documents and make downtime at court much more meaningful because they can do work. While workers appreciate being able to work directly on a case, some disadvantages of the tablet include that the voice recognition takes time to work accurately and that the tablets are a security concern to carry. Wisconsin has provided protection of confidential information by including a system where if the tablet PC is lost, the IT team can destroy the system “behind the scenes”. The IT team also checks in on the laptops once a quarter to update them.
Oklahoma example: Staff at Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services, Children and Family Services Division was frustrated with bulky laptops that were a barrier to communication with clients as well as smaller handheld devices that had a limited screen view. They hoped for constant access to child welfare databases, WiFi, and data cards. The workers also hoped for organizational assistance and a tool that would convert their handwriting into electronic text. Most of all, staff hoped that tablet PCs would help manage increasing paperwork and overwhelming workloads, allowing them to continue quality services. Statewide rollouts of tablet PCs in Oklahoma began in spring of 2007, and allowed access to more than 1500 tablets for child welfare workers, supervisors, and other staff.
Pros: The response to the tablet PCs was reportedly “overwhelmingly positive” and included presentations about increased productivity and flexibility. Staff accessed records, checked e-mail, and worked from outside of the office, saving time from returning or coming in on weekends or after hours. For example, while waiting for court, some staff documented casework in SACWIS. Staff relished anywhere access to SACWIS, Protective Orders information, Criminal Status information, Sex Offender information, childcare services, medical conditions, mental health diagnoses and medicines, and maps to locate homes of clients and available services, as well as other key information and tools.
There was minimal or no training required for users to get started, but ongoing training was offered to teach additional skills or useful practices, including sessions such as an introduction to the tablet PC, connecting from home/remotely, wireless networking, installing data cards, Bluetooth connectivity, features and functions of the tablet PC, an introduction to OneNote, and tablet guidelines & best practices.
Cons: One issue that arose about tablet PCs was that they were not well equipped to handle large databases, and therefore some SACWIS programmers and staff used desktop PCs when needed. Although battery life lasted 4-5 hours, each person who received a tablet PC was able to use two batteries. Testing time took a while, which was an issue, as well as the taking the time to get the right image for maximized performance across applications.
Worker/Manager Comments: In addition to providing “workers with a sense of control over their daily schedules”, managers report that “my staff can now complete computer work on a time schedule that better suits a Child Welfare worker’s chaotic lifestyle.” A supervisor adds that “the biggest change in work product I have seen as a supervisor is the amount of work documented throughout the months rather than the last week of the month rush to get everything done.” From the worker perspective, “when we are unable to find a client in the field it is helpful to be able to get back on the computer, while in our vehicles, & look for additional addresses we might have missed.” Overall productivity appears to have increased, as one staff member reported, “last month my Intake Unit completed more assessments & investigations than in any month within the past 18 months.”
Conclusion: Tablet PCs encourage more work and better work. They aid professionals in the field who are looking for compact technological means to frequently and easily access a wealth of information. In addition to saving time, some believe that tablet PCs help close cases more quickly through the ability to document more accurate information. They provide more control and flexibility for workers, and allow more overall work time, and thus further productivity.
For more information about the Oklahoma Tablet Project, contact Bill Hindman: Bill.Hindman@OKDHS.org. For more information about the Wisconsin tablet PC program, contact Martha Johnson:firstname.lastname@example.org or (414) 220-7020
Children’s Bureau Express Online Digest. November 2006. Vol. 7, No. 8. . Accessed June 3, 2008 at http://cbexpress.acf.hhs.gov/index.cfm?event=website.viewArticles&issueid=78&articleID=1217
Hindman, B. D. (2006). Oklahoma Tablet Project- Worker Productivity. PowerPoint Presentation at the 7th annual child welfare IT manager’s meeting.
Technical Assistance: This document is part of the Tips, Tools, and Trends Series provided by the National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data and Technology (NRC-CWDT). Readers may obtain technical assistance from this Children’s Bureau’s Resource Center by emailing email@example.com. More information can be found on www.nrccwdt.org. If you wish to request onsite technical assistance from the NRC-CWDT, contact your ACF Regional Office.