Five years ago, most people thought of online education in the vein of unaccredited programs with coursework that could be completed at a student’s leisure. The general consensus was that it probably wasn’t a “real” degree with anything close to a rigorous curriculum. And earning a reputable social work degree online? Forget it. How could anyone learn online the skills needed for such a personal, interactive profession?
But the USC School of Social Work didn’t see it that way. With new technologies like cloud computing that makes coursework available anywhere, any time and social networking tools that enable people to connect and share via online communities, Web-based education presented an opportunity.
“It was a way to expand access on a national scale to meet the growing need for lifelong learning and reach students underserved by the traditional university model,” said Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work. “As a top research university, we have a meaningful role to play in the online education revolution. And I think we have demonstrated that.”
She refers to the school’s visionary leap in 2010, teaming up with education technology company 2U to deliver the first national Master of Social Work program (MSW@USC) from an elite research university via the Web. Today, the school trains 5 percent of the nation’s new professional social workers.
Numerous other schools and departments of social work have followed suit with their own Web-based MSW programs. But students still flock to USC.
One reason is the MSW@USC experience. Much of the success of the program can be attributed to the School of Social Work’s uncompromising belief that the academic rigor and student experience of the online program should equal that of the on-campus program. To ensure this, the school has leveraged tools and techniques to create an unprecedented online community — one that offers students the interaction, support and collaboration they would not find in any other Web-based MSW.
Those that said it couldn’t be done are now witnessing the online MSW@USC program’s impact.
“After teaching on the ground for over 20 years, I am impressed at how effective the online experience is, not only for teaching and learning, but for creating an informed participatory intellectual community,” said Associate Professor Michael Rank. “Those that said it couldn’t be done are now witnessing the online MSW@USC program’s impact.”
Students log on with webcams at specified lecture times for live, Skype-like classes led by School of Social Work faculty. As students enter the “classroom,” their screens fill up with video feeds from other classmates and the professor, enabling them to engage in face-to-face discussions with each other.
“I think that’s made the biggest difference in terms of virtual teaching — that level of interaction,” said June Wiley, director of the school’s Virtual Academic Center, which houses the MSW@USC. “I find the students come to class well-prepared, attentive and eager to learn, and it’s helpful to be able to communicate with such ease on the platform.”
Connecting through the network
Wiley said professors are able to create a more captivating experience by interspersing videos and YouTube clips into their live discussions, in addition to bringing in the school’s leading researchers for guest lectures. The school also has produced many of its own video case studies with professional actors to help bring to life key concepts. Some case studies, such as “Abby,” offer students the chance to follow a single client from childhood to adulthood across a full semester.
Through the online classroom, students and faculty are able to build relationships and collaborate 24/7.
“One unique and powerful facet of this program is the ability to network, learn from and interact with like-minded social workers and professors from all around the world,” said Ashley Rhodes-Courter, an MSW@USC graduate and founder and executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Families.
Students form such strong bonds over the virtual platform that many make efforts to meet in person, even coming together to raise money for charity by participating in the American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure bicycle rides all over the country. Two students felt such a powerful connection in class that they fell in love and got married.
“I can say 100 percent that I am more successful and more well-rounded now because of my experiences through USC, the people I met and the partnerships I’ve made,” said Corrine St. Thomas, MSW ’13, who now works for as an investigative assistant in the District Attorney’s Office in Orange County.
An impact in local communities
Unprecedented at the time, the MSW@USC found its place in the history books as the first accredited online MSW program from a top-ranked school, differentiating itself with no residency requirements and field placements for students where they lived. All coursework could be done from their computers, and by completing local internships, they were well on their way to making valuable professional contacts in their communities to help them secure jobs after graduation.
“Without having to relocate, students have an opportunity to make a direct impact in their own communities,” said Rhodes-Courter, referring to the 3.1 million fieldwork hours MSW@USC students have completed in their local communities since the inception of the program.
USC has even introduced a way to give students extra preparation to practice their clinical skills.
The Virtual Field Practicum (VFP), which is now required training for MSW@USC students, offers a simulated clinical setting with a live actor trained to play the role of a client in crisis. This provides students with the opportunity to consider strategies of practice in a safe, supervised setting and receive in-the-moment coaching and support from faculty and classmates. The VFP also helps prepare students with evidence-based techniques, such as motivational interviewing and problem-solving therapy, to support them in their actual field placements.
MSW@USC students are located all over the country and the world — in 49 states, the District of Columbia and 14 countries — many of whom are bound by location due to career or personal commitments, including service members and their family members living on military bases.