A growing pool of research suggests that a person can learn as well online as in the classroom. I had the privilege of visiting University of North Dakota recently; they've been doing online-distance ed in social work longer than anyone. They offer synchronous classes, which means that students log in at particular times and interface with their teachers and classmates directly via webcam, very much like if they were sitting in the classroom. The faculty that teach these classes are the same faculty that teach in the on-campus program. Admission to the program is selective, but they offer some priority to geographic isolation- which means they can contribute to social justice by helping educate place-bound students in communities where social work ed may not otherwise be available. Their cutting-edge online software allows the class to be divided in to small groups with their online classmates to discuss issues via webcam (just like in a classroom), and for students to meet individually by webcam and record mock interviews for faculty review, and even for students to raise a virtual hand and be called on in class. Students meet on campus for several intensive days of study and orientation every year. Faculty members fly all over the United States to visit students in their communities at their field placements, in person- in more than 30 states. AND the online program costs the same for residents and non-residents, making it a more financially accessible option than many private schools. The faculty was really warm, and overall a group with rich practice and research experience. These are some of the characteristics that suggest a lot of thought has gone in to online program delivery that meets the needs of the students and provides quality content.
There are several other programs offering social work education online. Some online schools require some period of residency or require that you live within the state. An online degree takes a similar amount of time and devotion as an in-person program. If you are considering online social work education, you should ask:
- Is the program accredited by CSWE? (Most employers only recognize CSWE accredited programs.)
- Are classes synchronous (at a certain time) or asynchronous (log in at your convenience)?
- How are field placements arranged?
- Does the program have a specialization? What are they known for? (macro practice? clinical? rural?)
- How does a student practice social work skills like interviewing and engagement? What does class participation look like?
- Do tenure-track faculty teach in the program, or all the instructors mostly adjuncts? Are they conducting research and providing service in their fields?
- How do students access the faculty for advising and questions?
- Is there an in-person requirement? If so, what are the associated expenses? (air travel, hotel, etc.)
- What is the selection criteria and the retention (how many students drop out?)
- How many students are in the program? How do you work with other students?
- How expensive is the program?
- How are disruptions handled (if you have to drop a class, etc)?
An application for an online grad program should be taken as seriously as an application to a site-based program. Although it comes with some conveniences, it has a unique set of challenges as well. Look at what other online learners have said to evaluate whether this might be a good match for you. If you've been an online learner, let me know what you think.