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Teaching Social Justice via Distance Education — Technology & Experiential Learning
By Nathalie P. Jones, PhD, MSW, and Melissa Thompson, LCSW, OSW-C
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 2 P. 16

Motivating students to social justice advocacy can be a formidable task in any educational setting. Two educators skilled in social work technology explore how to effectively take on the challenge in online coursework.

Many social work educators find themselves in a quagmire when trying to design and deliver course work that inspires and transforms students into social justice advocates. What does it take to do this? We will share our use of electronic pedagogy to achieve this outcome in distance education communities. Believe it or not, with the appropriate integration of technology, research and experiential learning and distance education is especially well suited for this type of knowledge development. Online learning provides professional skills that are equipping students to become pioneers and to network with communities globally (Marquart & Ryan, 2019).

In the past social workers were known to serve impoverished communities, providing healing and bringing resources to groups (e.g., families, communities, organizations). This included coordinating community events, serving as mediators, and advocating on behalf of various populations. Currently, social workers have been called to action to use their voices and skills to bridge gaps in communities, for example. In some neighborhoods, social workers help bring together community events such as coffee with police and story time with police that facilitate stronger community relationships. They also can be found working in communities to be sure members are aware and registering for health insurance as well as holding educational forums on issues related to social determinants of health.

Although these events take place in face-to-face settings, social workers who teach with technology have the ability to coordinate Twitter chats with police using questions and answers as a community building tool. As social work faculty members, we acknowledge that “social justice” can be a popular phrase tied to our field, and yet students often share how difficult they find it to actually understand whether what they are doing in their field placements is related to social justice. Often left to policy coursework, students are hungry for more real world experiences—experiences where they can apply the skills and abilities they are being taught in social work courses. From building a social justice toolkit to interacting with agency leaders who are on the front lines of social justice work, students are eager to be the change they want to see in the world. Positioning students to understand what social justice is and developing advocacy skills through experiential course assignments creates the toolkit that allows students to take action on the interrelated principles of social justice.

Why Distance Education?
Why is distance education well suited for this type of knowledge development? Because it creates deeper awareness of students’ own environment and resources creating potential for advocacy work. The deliberate application of online pedagogy and technology provides the opportunity to reach a large audience at one time (Thompson & Jones, 2019). Distance education expands tech knowledge and use in social work practice. According to the new technology standards (NASW, 2017), it is essential for social workers to use online spaces in an ethical manner. Therefore, class assignments and activities must foster those skills using real world problems. The current social issues that are constantly discussed in the media include police relations, women in the military, and violence towards LGBTQ+ individuals and groups. Society is largely impacted when these matters are highlighted across media outlets. Assignments such as discussion boards, creating advocacy methods, and participating in legislative practices are necessary in and outside of the social work classroom. Principles of social justice education and pedagogy are important to transformative learning, which, O’Sullivan reminds us, “involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and action” (O’Sullivan, 2003). It shifts consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world.

Educational Policies and Standards
The Council on Social Work Education developed the Educational Policies and Standards (EPAS) to assist with the professional integration of the social work profession. The EPAS includes competencies for productive social work practice that are implemented into accredited social work programs (Council on Social Work Education, 2015). In order to keep accreditation, there are review dates in place to ensure that trainings, field education, and curriculums adhere to the EPAS standards—for instance, the integration of social justice into curriculums through program missions and assignments. Additionally, field education should include experiences with the social work core values such as service, social justice, competence, integrity, and human relationships as an opportunity for students to understand dignity and worth for all persons. Then, continuous training should be provided for social work practitioners and educators to ensure that they are learning about evidence-based practices as well as staying abreast with the constantly evolving world.

Learning in Online Communities
In the online setting, there is a very deliberate nature to learning, requiring all members of the learning community to work intentionally, collaboratively, and reflectively. These experiences lay foundations for social work practice, allowing students to develop critical thinking skills used in practice. While online learning still requires students to complete a few traditional assignments, it also provides the opportunity for unique and effective learning experiences. Additionally, with teaching social justice online, the importance of relationships and communication cannot be overlooked. Social work instructors must work to build relationships with each student as well as the learning community as a whole. Meaningful interactions and the creation of brave learning environments are the cornerstone of teaching social justice effectively and even more so when the instructor and students are teaching and learning in virtual spaces. These are also foundational skills for effective social work practice.

The How: Building Relationships
Relationships are connections and partnerships that are sometimes created around similar views, perspectives, and goals. There are many ways to build relationships in virtual learning spaces. For instance, learning management systems assist with regular faculty-to-student communication. The communication methods include weekly announcements that outline learning goals, reflect successful learning outcomes from the previous weeks, and share that you know how hard they are working to strengthen relationships. Discussion boards not only allow students to apply content but also facilitate the development of peer relationships. Online discussions often allow for deeper applications of course content; students share that discussions allow them to reflect on how they want to apply course materials and respond to the question posed by the professor in a way they often don’t experience in a residential class. In fact, many students take more risks in the online learning community than they do outside of it, supporting what Merryfield (2003) observed: Discussions in online classes “often act as a veil to protect people as they reveal themselves.” Students find themselves asking questions that prompt discomfort as well as taking risks with sharing their authentic perspectives. Utilizing community building activities in each class helps to build trust and strengthen relationships. Video conferencing software is also used to meet with students in groups or individually.

Online Social Justice Assignments
There is power in numbers, as the world has witnessed through social media. Fundraising, advocacy, and social justice events and discussions are taking place digitally. This was seen after the release of Ava DuVernay’s film When They See Us, which focused on the police brutality and injustice in the Central Park Five case. Dialogue circulated throughout social media outlets focusing on the role social workers play in social justice and injustices community dialogues, and how they can work towards policies that address these issues. These discussions and the action steps that resulted remind us of the collaborations and justice movements that are developed as a result of technology as location barriers fall away.

In online social welfare policy classes, students are assigned teams and encouraged to experience debates on various topics. During their online debates (via Zoom, Google Hangouts, and YouTube) they engage over relevant facts related to current cases and the impact of technology on the outcomes. In retrospect, assignments and class activities relevant to real world circumstances usually lead students to practice civic engagement and advocacy regardless of what type of social work practice they pursue. Students who are pursuing helping professions are usually in it for the “change factor.” Therefore, creating and administering online social justice assignments are setting students up for success.

Sample Assignments
Social Justice in the LGBTQ+ Population: For this assignment, students explore an LGBTQ+ social, political, or activist-oriented organization. The organization should provide services such as psychosocial and/or health support or work to challenge the oppression of or discrimination against LGTBQ+ communities. Students must schedule an interview with a leader within one of these organizations and attend an event sponsored by the organization. They must call and/or e-mail before attending an event or meet with the agency’s leader. This way, they can be sure that they are open to working with a social work student on this project. Some events are likely private, or students’ attendance could impact the experience of those who are being treated or served, so it is important for students to arrange their meeting and event attendance ahead of time. Then, students write a reflection paper explaining what the organization does, how they do it, and what effects their work may have on LGBTQ+ communities. Finally, they include their personal reflection of the experience with this activity. Immediately following the event, students make time to journal/log the objective and subjective reactions they experienced during the event.

Social Justice in the Policies: For this assignment, policy briefs are created by students using Microsoft PowerPoint slides. The purpose of the policy briefs is to provide online communities and elected officials with information pertaining to various social issues. In online spaces, students share their assignments (policy briefs) with stakeholders who will benefit from the statistical data. Also, they are shared on blogs and other social media outlets during social work advocacy day on Capitol Hill and distributed to elected officials/aides via e-mail. Afterwards, students are expected to complete a reflection assignment on the responses received from stakeholders. Those responses have been pleasant and encouraging to students. In some instances, this assignment has transformed into a working relationship with elected officials that created opportunities for internships and/or employment.

Social Justice on Women in the Military: For this assignment, students create an infographic addressing a social issue related to women in the military. The purpose of this assignment is to research a topic of interest and to share specifics online through social media websites. Platforms used to create infographics are Piktochart, PowerPoint, Google Slides, and Canvas. Once they create an infographic, the student whose content has the most shares through social media is acknowledged and celebrated at the end of the semester. Using the infographic as a social justice tool encourages students to identify, research, and inform others about a social issue.

Teaching social justice online is important in the technology-driven world. It is also an ethical and core values requirement in the social work profession. Students exploring topics that are relevant to their communities and the passion expressed in the assignments is why many teachers remain in the classroom. Social justice assignments in online education allow students to experience the ease or discomfort in identifying and exploring necessary resources, much like a client does. This would be a lived experience of advantage vs disadvantage and/or using critical thinking and conflict resolution skills. The use of technology opens the door to micro, mezzo, and macro practice for current and future social work practitioners (Hitchcock, Sage, & Smyth, 2019). It creates the opportunity to serve as advocates through linking clients to services, helping with locating funding and sharing information that may inform policy makers. Social justice in online education generates a digital footprint related to social issues. This has become the norm in today’s society. Digital storytelling has been found to have benefits in social work education, as it allows for multiple ways to present information and brings a specific topic to life when covered in the curriculum (McGovern, 2019).

Several individuals pursue the field of social work to “help others.” Social justice is one of the methods to help when in-depth research of a circumstance takes place. There are several skills that social workers possess; however, the pursuit of social justice calls for ambiguity. The social work profession is grounded in core values (NASW, 2017) and held to standards that make the profession rich and effective in many ways. The core values identify the purpose and tasks of social workers in practice and education. Social work intervention takes place in all populations through evidence-based practices. However, they are somewhat streamlined and recognized as local news. Using online platforms breaks down barriers and eliminates the knowledge of social injustices to the local news; it broadens the reach.

In recent years, social media sites have become the main source for highlighting social issues, also known as injustices. Therefore, social workers have been called to action, in the classroom (online/traditional), in practice, and beyond. This call has been accepted, and social workers across the world are answering in online platforms. With students being introduced to experiential learning through social justice in online education, their awareness is heightened and they become willing to advocate, intervene, and spread awareness in their geographical locations. Teaching social justice in online education bridges the gap between in-person and online classes. It introduces skills online that translate into practice and makes students marketable when entering the field. The social work profession is known for engagement in social action; ensuring that all educational practices are inclusive of the core values is essential and encourages experiential learning.

— Nathalie P. Jones, PhD, MSW, is an associate professor of social work at Tarleton State University.

— Melissa Thompson, LCSW, OSW-C, is a professor at Dominican University’s School of Social Work.


Council on Social Work Education. (2015). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Retrieved from http://www.cswe.org/Accreditation/EPASRevision.aspx.

Hitchcock, L. I., Sage, M., & Smyth, N. J. (2019). Teaching social work with digital technology. Alexandria, VA: CSWE Press.

Marquart, M., & Ryan, D. (2019, January 15). Taking online courses — 7 professional benefits for social work students. Social Work Today. Retrieved from https://www.socialworktoday.com/news/enews_0119_1.shtml.

McGovern, J. (2019). Improving undergraduate competence in multicultural gerontology practice with fresh pedagogies: A digital storytelling case example. Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, 40(4), 508-518.

Merryfield, M. (2003). Like a veil: Cross-cultural experiential learning online. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 3(2), 146-171.

National Association of Social Workers. (2017). NASW, ABSW, CSWE & CSWA standards for technology in social work practice. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/includes/newIncludes/homepage/PRA-BRO-33617.TechStandards_FINAL_POSTING.pdf.

O’Sullivan, E. (2003). Bringing a perspective of transformative learning to globalized consumption. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 27(4), 326-330.

Thompson, M., & Jones, N. P. (2019, August 21). Tips for new online social work educators. Retrieved from: https://www.laureliversonhitchcock.org/2019/08/21/tips-for-new-online-social-work-educators/.