Monday, January 24, 2011

Should you get your MSW degree online?

If you are an online-ed skeptic, you're in good company according to this research report which indicates that over half of hiring executives polled viewed online grads less favorably. But let's face it, online degrees are not all created equal.  If you graduate from an MSW program, employers foremost want to know if it is CSWE accredited, and you want to make sure you're learning the core skills of the profession.  If you are on the market for a social work degree, it's important to know what you are looking for.

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:
  1. Is the program accredited by CSWE? (Most employers only recognize CSWE accredited programs.) 
  2. Are classes synchronous (at a certain time) or asynchronous (log in at your convenience)?
  3. How are field placements arranged?
  4. Does the program have a specialization? What are they known for? (macro practice? clinical? rural?)
  5. How does a student practice social work skills like interviewing and engagement? What does class participation look like?
  6. Do tenure-track faculty teach in the program, or all the instructors mostly adjuncts?  Are they conducting research and providing service in their fields? 
  7. How do students access the faculty for advising and questions?
  8. Is there an in-person requirement? If so, what are the associated expenses? (air travel, hotel, etc.)
  9. What is the selection criteria and the retention (how many students drop out?)
  10. How many students are in the program? How do you work with other students?
  11. How expensive is the program?
  12. How are disruptions handled (if you have to drop a class, etc)?
You must also do some self reflection.  Can you dedicate time and attention to online study, and eventually do a time-intensive field placement in the community? Students are typically asked to work full days either 2 days a week over a year or 4 days a week over a semester. These placements are typically unpaid.  What are your experiences with online learning?  What kinds of supports will you need to be successful?

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.


  1. Whoa. I'm an advocate for some online learning. I would never have gotten through a math class in undergrad without it. But getting a social work degree online? I can't imagine.

    I go to NYU which is a relatively clinical focused program. I get that you can record mock interviews and all that, but social work rarely (though this is changing) takes place through a web cam. Having someone in front of you is a totally different experience. There's so many difficult feelings that come up during an MSW education (I'm only a semester in and I've experienced this several times!). Being able to switch off the computer instead of processing right then and there I think is selling the student short.

    I get that the placement will not be digital. I dunno. I just can't wrap my mind around this for such a human interaction-based degree. I think a more hybrid type of degree would be fine... some classes online, some in person. I think this is the sort of thing where I'd really have to see it to believe it!

    1. Michelle, I realize your review is five years old, but the entire class is not online. There are ten days of 8-hours each of class, intensives, and labs. There are also in-person field placements for practicum and internships. The only online portion is similar to the standard on-campus courses other schools offer.

  2. Michelle- you replied to this a year ago, and I am back after a long hiatus after accepting a position here at UND- and I am seeing it and believing it! I will talk more about what I believe are key components of ethical online social work education, and some of the challenges and strengths that I have witnessed having taught a clinical families class online. (Delayed) thanks for your comment.

  3. I think some people are so close-minded. I completed a master's degree (from a state university) online and had an amazing experience. I made life-long friends who I was able to meet in-person for the first time at graduation. One of my professors and I are writing academic articles together and several of us have taken trips to different professional conferences to present our individual thesis projects - and this is all post-graduation. I have a terrible taste in my mouth for online schools (ahem, corporations) such as U of Phoenix, Kaplan, etc. but the state university offers a very different experience. I think that sometimes, people are threatened by the idea of others earning degrees similarly to theirs but what they don't realize is that remote learners work just as hard, if not harder, for the same degree. It is NOT an easy way out. In my opinion, the online learner demonstrates more initiative, motivation and self-discipline.

    I was so thrilled with my experience that I am considering an online MSW and was looking into the program at UND. Melanie, I'd love to get some more information about this if you have time. Are you willing to share your contact information?? I'd leave mine here but would rather not post it in a public forum. Thanks!!