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Eye on Ethics

The Elephant in the (Virtual) Classroom: The Ethical Implications of Online Social Work Education
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
August 3, 2012

In the exhibition hall at a recent social work conference, I visited a booth devoted exclusively to publicizing a relatively new online MSW program. I perused the program’s print materials and spoke with the school’s representative about the design and delivery of the curriculum. She acknowledged controversy among social work educators and practitioners about the merits of online MSW programs: “We know some employers may have reservations about this, but nowhere on the transcript is there any indication that the degree was earned online.”

I am not a Luddite who is determined to resist all manner of distance education innovations and technological tools. Indeed, in recent years I have taught multiple courses that included substantial online components along with in-class sessions (so-called hybrid courses) and many continuing education courses offered exclusively online. I appreciate and am enthusiastic about the creative ways in which digital and other electronic technology can enrich social work education through the use of sophisticated and versatile course-management software, video lectures, Web-based literature, audio files, e-mail, and listservs.

Clearly students can learn a great deal online. The format provides earnest students with opportunities to contemplate challenging questions without the constraints of a time-limited class session, formulate thoughtful answers, and engage in substantive dialogue. And, of course, there are the advantages of flexible scheduling, remote access from worldwide locations, and teaching tools designed for different learning styles.

But I walked away from the exhibition hall booth feeling both intrigued and uneasy. I have spent much of my career in social work education and value the richness and remarkable teaching moments that occur when a group of students and their professor convene in person to wrestle with difficult intellectual issues, engage in thought-provoking dialogue, and master challenging theories and practice models. There is a vast divide between the use of distance education technology to supplement classroom-based education and the online social work education programs—not just courses—launched recently by a handful of universities. While the new online model clearly has staunch supporters, it is clear that many social workers and educators are beginning to raise compelling questions about the ethical implications of this new phenomenon.

Given that online social work education is relatively young and developing rapidly, it is important at this juncture to ask several critically important ethics-related questions.

Does an online program sufficiently honor social work’s longstanding commitment to human relationships?
The NASW Code of Ethics states explicitly, “Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.” I have no doubt that I can develop relationships with students I teach online and never meet in person. We engage in dialogue and, over time, develop some sense of each other’s communication style and personality qualities (e.g., our tendency to convey messages directly or indirectly, sense of humor). But I am hard pressed to say that relationships I develop with students I know only online rise to the level of deeply human relationships, given our widely shared understanding of what this term means.

When I teach students in person, I can see and react to their facial expressions and other subtle nonverbal cues (e.g., eyes clearly focused on the instructor or fully shut, hands raised to contribute a point during an animated discussion, facial expressions conveying confusion or irritation). When warranted, we can sit in my office and engage in rich one-on-one conversation during which students sometimes share and explore deeply personal life facts and challenges that are relevant to their education.

Further, students who spend weeks together in physical classrooms often form intensely personal relationships with each other, which greatly enhance the quality of their learning. I often encounter alumni who comment on the profound impact that their relationships with fellow students had on their education and career. I have not been able to match these experiences when my teaching is exclusively electronic and directed toward students who never meet me or each other in person.

Interestingly, social work researchers have spent a great deal of time seeking to identify specific practitioner behaviors that enhance the helping relationship. We now have a substantial body of empirical research that identifies key factors that influence the development of meaningful practitioner-client relationships, several of which require or greatly benefit from the clinician and client being in the same room: nonverbal communication, seeking feedback from the client, being willing and able to discuss the client’s view of the relationship, active listening, nurturing greetings and farewells, using humor, and responding to expressions of feeling.

Social work educators must ask themselves to what extent some of these same elements are essential ingredients in the teacher-student relationship and to what extent they are possible in exclusively online interactions. In what ways might exclusively online relationships between instructors and students lead students to believe that this is what it means to truly connect with another human being with whom one is engaged in important work? Might this be the prelude to a radical redefinition of what it means to connect with a client?

Can we be assured that online programs provide sufficient quality control?
Social work educators are morally obligated to ensure student competence, monitor student progress, and address any concerns that arise related to ethical conduct and impairment. These duties are spelled out in the NASW Code of Ethics. There is considerable debate among social work educators about whether students can learn to be truly competent practitioners while taking courses only online, recognizing that important skill development also occurs in supervised field internships. Cognitively oriented courses, such as policy and research, may be well suited to online instruction. However, high-quality clinical courses that focus in-depth on interpersonal skill development may be very difficult to teach without face-to-face contact.

Social work educators know that classroom discussions provide regular, ongoing opportunities to observe students’ conduct and comportment; occasionally instructors note questionable behaviors in class—such as making inappropriate comments, eye rolling, leaving the classroom for extended periods of time, engaging in sidebar chats, and passing notes—that warrant attention. At times, social work educators need to have confidential discussions among themselves to review student progress and develop plans to address and remediate concerns about troubling student conduct. My experience is that instruction offered exclusively online greatly reduces opportunities to observe, monitor, and address such “red flag” behaviors. This compromises social work educators’ ability to fulfill their ethically prescribed gatekeeping function.

Further, online faculty members’ ability to confer with each other and compare notes about student progress—a regular occurrence in traditional brick-and-mortar social work education programs—is constrained when instructors are scattered geographically and do not have ongoing working relationships with each other.

Are online programs meeting their ethical duty to be forthright in their representations to the public?
The representative I met at the professional social work conference stated that an advantage of her school’s online program is that official transcripts are indistinguishable from transcripts for the university’s traditional classroom program. This raises complex ethical questions: Do online programs and their graduates have a duty to disclose that the coursework was completed entirely online? Do potential employers have a right to know this information? Does failure to disclose constitute deception or misrepresentation? Or does the burden rest with potential employers? Do we believe that if the way in which a job applicant obtained her degree matters, employers should ask for this information and weigh it as they see fit?

Online social work education programs are expanding. One impetus may be economic; online offerings may provide a cost-effective way to reach large numbers of tuition-paying students. These programs pose numerous vexing ethical questions that warrant careful consideration and scrutiny—and soon.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work, Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, healthcare, criminal justice, and professional ethics.