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The Evolution of Online
Social Work Education

By Kristin Battista-Frazee, MSW

A traditional rite of passage when you enroll in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program is to uproot your life and move to a new city or state. But today it’s no longer necessary to live and attend school in the same location to pursue higher education thanks to the growing number of MSW degrees available online.

According to the 2015 Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) report,“Annual Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States,” 60% of master’s programs offer part or all of their programs in an online or hybrid format. Forty-one master’s programs (17.6%) are offered entirely online. The intersection of high tech and academia has transformed how we think about traditional social work education.

Social Work Education’s Online Journey

In 2002, Florida State University was one of the first MSW programs to launch a distance education option to a regional area. As technology advanced and online continuing education and degree programs became more commonplace, the University of Southern California School of Social Work, recently renamed the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, launched a large-scale online MSW degree in 2010 with technology partner 2U, Inc.

The social work community was initially skeptical about whether USC’s online MSW degree could provide a rigorous educational experience comparable to a campus-based program. Online degrees at the time were synonymous with low-quality education delivered by disreputable for-profit universities. But today USC has 2,200 MSW students enrolled in its online program.

“We have truly achieved national outreach, with students in every state and three foreign countries, and demonstrated that it is possible to offer a compelling, face-to-face experience for all of our students, whether in residence or in our Virtual Academic Center,” says Marilyn Flynn, PhD, dean of USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Since 2010, a cascade of other top-ranked MSW programs launched their degree online. Boston University, Columbia University, Case Western Reserve University, Indiana University, and Rutgers University are just a few. Schools offer varying online and campus hybrid options, synchronous and asynchronous courses, and some type of support for supervised field education experiences in local communities; they have either a national or regional focus.

“We are a national (and international) graduate program and wanted to be truly accessible to every qualified candidate who aspired to be a leader in bringing about social change, regardless of their current residence,” says Jeanette C. Takamura, PhD, a former dean and professor at Columbia University School of Social Work, regarding its Ivy League MSW program which launched in 2015 and offers students the flexibility to mix and match their attendance in residential and online campuses to earn their MSW degree.

Although many schools of social work have online campuses, other top-ranked programs, such the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and University of California—Berkeley, do not.

“We decided not to pursue an online MSW degree program at this time and wanted to innovate by focusing on engaged learning strategies within our current MSW residential program, and the development of blended courses,” says Mary C. Ruffolo, PhD, associate dean for educational programs and collegiate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.

In the fall of 2016, the University of Michigan School of Social Work partnered with edX, which offers massive open online courses (MOOCs) from top universities, to launch the Social Work MicroMasters. This program has free self-paced courses or paid credentials taught by faculty on practice, policy, and research topics. The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice has also partnered with edX to offer “Top 10 Social Issues for the President’s First 100 Days,” a course made available in January 2017.

Both schools have put a different twist on embracing online learning and exposing social work education to a mass audience. The University of Michigan School of Social Work describes its Social Work MicroMasters as a workforce development resource and a pathway to earn an accelerated MSW degree. Students who complete the Social Work MicroMasters credential program, pass additional required coursework, and gain acceptance to the school’s program can earn an MSW degree in three semesters instead of four. There’s clear interest with more than 7,000 participants from 181 countries and regions having enrolled in the introductory social work course available through Social Work MicroMasters.

For anyone who takes a social work course or is currently employed in the social services, once you decide to earn your MSW degree, determining which program, either online or on campus, is best for you depends on many factors.

To Earn an MSW Online or Not?

To answer this question it’s less about any stark difference between an online or on-campus program and more about determining your overall needs and goals as a student and future professional. You should consider how you learn and work best, life circumstance, and study interests. For example, you may not be able to move to attend a campus-based program because relocating your family is not possible.

Costs and scholarship opportunities may be the most important deciding factors. Some people are unable unwilling to take out student loans for private university education. Luckily there are affordable state universities, such as Indiana University and its MSW Direct program, which offer online and campus programs.

“Without question, completing coursework via distance learning requires discipline. But moving to New York is also not for everyone,” says Steven Schinke, PhD, the D’Elbert and Selma Keenan Professor at Columbia University School of Social Work. “Regardless of whether you decide to study online or on campus, choose a school that meets your career needs. You will carry your MSW degree with you the rest of your life. Choose carefully and wisely. Then prepare yourself for a life-transforming experience.”

“Explore the curriculum of each program, talk with faculty and students at the schools where you are interested in applying, determine how you learn best, explore the cost and scholarship options, and select the program that best meets your learning goals,” Ruffolo advises.

The Future of Online Social Education

Marshall McLuhan, coauthor of The Medium Is the Massage in 1967, was the first communications theorist whose work spawned decades of debate about how technology influences life and whether the medium is or is not the message. McLuhan’s philosophies could also apply to changes in social work education as we strive to determine how online venues and methods influence educating future social work leaders.

“As new technologies continue to evolve, changing pedagogy and course formats will develop that help to improve the delivery and access to social work education,” according to Jo Ann R. Coe Regan, PhD, vice president of education for CSWE. “It is expected that collaborative models of community learning as represented in MOOCs and focus on competency-based education models will further enhance the development of online education.”

“Since online education in many forms is pervasive everywhere,” Flynn says, “the main questions are how to integrate virtual faculties, use techniques for education that are so powerful virtually and in on-ground applications, broaden the understanding of our colleagues about both the problems and solutions of operating with no traditional borders, and starting a new dialogue about learning that isn’t so fixated on the technology.”

New curriculums and technologies will certainly push our boundaries and change learning paradigms. What’s become evident is the ever-growing blurred lines between online and campus-based programs that point to a future where the best of both worlds will create one seamless academic experience. Who knows? One day a hologram of your professor just might show up in your living room to start class. We could just assume we’re on our way to go boldly where no one has gone before.

— Kristin Battista-Frazee, MSW, is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in McLean, VA.