Taking Online Social Work Courses — 7 Professional Benefits
By Matthea Marquart, MSSW, and Delia Ryan, LMSW
As social workers who work in online education, we have witnessed distinct professional benefits for social work students who take online courses.
Beyond learning the course content, taking courses online helps students develop virtual communication and collaboration skills, self-discipline, and confidence with technology—all of which are associated with expanded career opportunities and professional success.
From cutting-edge technological proficiencies to career networking expertise,
1) Online courses force you to become better at technology. During our years working in online education, we have found that students often start out with limited technical skills and knowledge, along with a lot of anxiety around how to excel academically in an unfamiliar environment. By the time they graduate—and even by the end of their first semester—students have become not only more adept with the technology but also sufficiently confident to train their peers and share their tips for success by participating in virtual presentations and Q&A sessions.
Michele D. Gehr, MSSW, executive director of Eddy House, an organization that works with homeless and at-risk youth in Nevada, says, “I consider myself to be technologically challenged. My staff would agree. Taking an online course was initially intimidating and I didn’t always get things right the first time. As an older student, I worried that I wouldn’t learn as much in an online class and assumed I would struggle with the technology. From the first day, I found that I could keep up with my classmates and fully participate with few problems. I now use technology in my daily professional life and am able to communicate effectively and efficiently in online forums, in virtual groups, and via e-mail.”
2) Online courses develop your digital communication skills. Lilit Sargsyan, MSSW, ACSW, psychiatric social worker at Los Angeles Correctional Health, says, “For me, the most beneficial aspect as an emerging clinician was the ability to strengthen my communication skills. At times, in an online forum, limited by a chat box and screen time, it can be challenging to express thoughts adequately. I have learned to communicate effectively, taking into consideration time, space, audience, and tone. I have successfully transferred this skill into my practice.”
Digital communication skills can also strengthen confidence in community organizing spheres. Social workers who have taken online classes can better facilitate online discussions, organize online advocacy campaigns, give virtual presentations, collaborate with virtual teams, and model respectful communication on websites, social media platforms, and discussion forums.
3) Taking even one online course can broaden your educational experience. A recent report by the Babson Group found that 31.6% of all higher education students take at least one distance course (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). Even if you are an on-campus student, it can benefit you to take an online course so you are not left without the professional benefits your peers are gaining.
Raji Edayathumangalam, MSc, PhD, LMSW, a New York-based social worker, says, “I was particularly curious about how teaching, learning, communication, and collaboration might happen in a virtual setting, given that digital communication is increasingly prevalent, no matter the field. I am thrilled to say that my first online course experience was very enlightening and positive, and very much recommend that every social work graduate student take at least one online course.”
4) Digital savviness is helpful for job searching and professional networking. Increasingly, job searches are taking place online; job applications and follow-up communication require technical proficiency and experience. Professional networking with fellow alumni, former professors, career offices, and other connections also happens online, e.g., via social media and informational interviews on web-conferencing platforms. Online students who have had extended opportunities to practice navigating online systems and communicating digitally will be equipped to succeed in finding a job.
Rebecca Chung, LMSW, Los Angeles-based program manager of Columbia University School of Social Work’s Online Campus, says, “I believe online learning offers a unique opportunity for social workers in today's age of technology. From personal experience, the online class I took helped me to leverage a competitive advantage in the workplace. I was able to improve and exercise technical skills that could easily translate to many professions. I also grew in my capacity to cultivate professional relationships via a digital platform.”
5) Confident webcam presence is important for virtual job interviews. Organizations are increasingly conducting interviews via web conferencing platforms such as Skype, Facetime, or Zoom. Online courses can prepare you to shine in your virtual interviews by giving you practice with webcam presentations and by building your confidence holding conversations in virtual environments.
Ana Quinones, LMSW, family-based caseworker at the Department of Family Protective Services in Amarillo, TX, says, “Having the opportunity and space to develop my webcam presence and online communication skills has been a unique asset to my career. Technology is evolving fast and professions should move right alongside it. Communications that take place online on developed platforms are incredibly sophisticated and interactive, which allowed me to build a type of confidence that is exclusive to online interactions. Job interviews and professional networking online don’t have to be awkward and cold; the online classes I took were immensely personal and in-depth.”
6) Social workers need to be adept at technology when working in the field. Taking social work courses online can prepare students for careers in settings that range from hospitals and private practices to social service agencies and grassroots organizations, and in positions ranging from clinical to policy to management. Social workers with technical skills can excel in a clinical workforce that’s becoming increasingly reliant on teletherapy and telehealth platforms, as well as databases and electronic health records.
Muhammed Garland, LMSW, senior substance use specialist, Shelter Assertive Community Treatment at Visiting Nurse Service of New York, says, “One of the benefits I received from taking online courses was that I learned how to become more disciplined around virtual and face-to-face teamwork. I’ve become adept at utilizing all the online tools that are available to me at work and I find myself teaching and modeling this behavior to all of my coworkers and managers.”
7) Social workers need technical skills to excel in leadership positions. The skills students develop in an online course may also help them when, later in their careers as social work professionals, they move into leadership and management positions. Social work managers need to be adept at using various technologies efficiently, e.g., for meeting facilitation, program evaluation, and financial management, in order to increase their organization’s competitive edge.
Dawn E. Shedrick, LCSW-R, New York-based CEO of JenTex Training & Consulting, says, “My participation in various online courses, professional development, and continuing education trainings has been vital in my work as the owner of a training and consulting firm and a social work educator. My business is grounded in the daily use of digital tools that allow me to communicate and share documents with my distributed team, manage our finances, deliver webinars, and manage our social media accounts for marketing and community engagement. I’ve also been given valuable insights into the user experience that I can translate into the online programming we develop and offer.”
Other Options for Developing These Skills
— Matthea Marquart, MSSW, is the director of administration, Online Campus at Columbia University School of Social Work (CSSW) and a lecturer at CSSW.
— Delia Ryan, LMSW, is a live support specialist for Columbia University School of Social Work’s Online Campus and a pretrial social worker at the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES).