Is an Online MSW Equal to an On-Campus MSW?

The ability to pursue a degree online is becoming an attractive option. Taking courses online allows students to complete the curriculum at their own convenience, choose the best program for their needs without having to relocate, and gain a greater degree of control over their learning environments. However, not all online programs are created equally, and variance between institutions, program types and even which fields of study are applicable to online learning can all impact the quality of a degree. This inconsistency of quality has led to some questioning about the validity of online learning in a variety of fields, including social work. However, high-quality, accredited online programs are changing the perception of the industry.

In short, an online Master of Social Work program can be just as reputable and valuable as a traditional learning experience. To understand why, let’s explore the rise of online learning, both in social work programs and in general, then delve into the unique characteristics of online social work programs.

The rise of online learning

The Council of Social Work Education’s last exhaustive study on educational dynamics in the sector found that online learning is gaining prominence in the sector, particularly for master’s level programs. The study exclusively polled CSWE-accredited programs. Approximately 17.6 percent of MSW programs are available online in entirety, while 42.9 percent offer a hybrid online and residency setup. Another nine percent of programs were expecting to have a hybrid course setup in place within the next year, and 6.9 percent were developing online or hybrid courses. All told, just 23.2 percent of MSW programs do not offer any form of online learning.

The move toward online programs in the social work sector is a reflection of the general trend in Academia. The Digital Learning Compass: Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017 study found that 14.3 percent of all higher education students are involved exclusively in distance learning. That represents a significant rise from 2012, when the figure was 12.6 percent. Another 15.4 percent were taking part in some distance learning at the time of the study, also an approximately 2 percent increase compared to 2012. All told, this adds up to a 3.9 percent total increase in the number of students participating in distance learning.

Considering online social work programs

Due to the nature of a social worker’s role— interfacing and engaging with clients on a personal level—online coursework may not seem as natural of a fit as it is in other areas, like business for example. In fact, Social Work Today reported that the sector has long been known as an area where students pursuing an MSW had to typically consider relocating and changing their lifestyles in order to fit an MSW program into their schedules. This has since changed, however, as initial forays into online learning in the sector found success and began changing preconceived notions about what methods work well for training students.

Over time, online learning for MSW programs has evolved to such a degree that the question is no longer about whether an online curriculum is valid, but instead about figuring out whether online is a good fit for each individual, the Social Work Today article explained. The availability of online programs means that students have more options in terms of scholarship availability, costs, aligning educational methods to learning styles and finding programs that help students achieve their personal goals. Essentially, the online option creates more freedom for choice, and the greater consistency in the online learning community means individuals can choose based on their personal preferences instead of being pushed into a program because of its location.

How online social work programs keep pace with in-person study

When MSW programs started to become available online, the primary concern raised was over the nature of the social work practice. Social work is an extremely interpersonal area of operation. Social workers are counselors, advocates, and coaches for individuals in a variety of circumstances. As such, their ability to listen, communicate and empathize is among their most important skills. These are practical, relational competencies that can’t be learned out of a book, so how do online programs end up working?

A U.S. News and World Report article highlights how online programs overcome distance learning challenges by pointing to the benefits offered by today’s digital technologies. Videoconferencing has become more accessible than ever before, so students taking an online course can hop into a virtual classroom and participate in role-playing exercises, group work, and similar activities just like they would in person. Online learning doesn’t mean staring at a computer screen reading through course materials or listening to a lecture. It also involves personal interactions and relationship building with other students and faculty members that is possible using today’s technologies that break down the limitations of geographical boundaries.

Besides making in-person interactions possible, the U.S. News and World Report story said that the field work and internship requirements associated with MSW degree programs are easily portable to student locations and don’t need to take place in the vicinity of the institution offering the degree. Students will often seek field placement in agencies or care facilities that are conveniently located to them, letting them gain the first-hand, real-world experience that is essential without having to relocate to pursue the degree program.

The combination of digital communications technologies and built-in field work requirements in an MSW program allow for natural, intuitive online learning that doesn’t sacrifice the personal, relational touch needed to develop key social work skills. Online MSW programs have emerged as strong options for individuals wanting to advance their careers without having to transplant their lives, but the online learning community is still maturing. With that in mind, it is important to go into an MSW program knowing what to expect from online learning in general.

Benefits and pitfalls of online learning

Generally speaking, online learning is lauded for its ability to help individuals learn at a more flexible pace and gain access to programs and resources that would otherwise be impossible. For example, a parent unwilling to uproot children from school could still choose a high-ranking MSW program located across the country because online learning eliminates the geographical limitation. However, this flexibility isn’t the only benefit of online learning.

An MSW Careers report highlighted a variety of advantages of pursuing an MSW online, and one of the standout benefits is that students in the program are often geographically diverse, exposing learners to a variety of points of view and world perspectives that may not be available in a program based strongly in a single physical location. Other key attributes of online MSW programs include:

  • The exact same type of degree as a traditional on premise program. The degree itself doesn’t differentiate based on program type
  • The ability to gain comfort with digital communications skills that are increasingly important in the workplace
  • The same curriculums and, usually, faculty as offered by in-person programs

In general, the online learning sector has matured to create a strong, safe environment for prospective learners. However, there are still some pitfalls associated with online learning that students would do well to avoid. U.S. News and World Report provided some guidance on how to tell if an online program is legitimate. Some of its advice included:

  • Accreditation: Look for accreditation as validation that the program will hold up to scrutiny. In the social work sector, the Council of Social Work Education is among the most prominent regulatory bodies, as it works under the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to assess the quality of MSW programs
  • Support: Participating in an online program should not mean sacrificing access to the student services that are common on college campuses. Tech support, library access and career advice should all be part of an online program. Academic coaching and faculty availability via office hours for online students should also be available. In the case of students pursuing an MSW, it is particularly important to ascertain the degree to which the institution will be able to help you find placement for field study. Getting real-world experience is essential within an MSW and often necessary for certification. You don’t have to take the dive into finding field placement on your own, and good online programs will typically offer support services in this area
  • Credit transfer: Flexibility is one of the primary benefits associated with online learning. However, that freedom for choice can run dry if you choose to transfer to a new program only to find that your credits won’t be accepted by other institutions. The degree to which credits will transfer out for a program is often an indication of how other institutions view that curriculum. As such, researching into how past program participants have fared during transfers can help you identify how well regarded an online program is among the larger academic community
  • Campus:An online program backed by an exclusively online school isn’t inherently untrustworthy. However, having a traditional campus is often a sign of a degree program that is founded in the typical values and expectations of higher education. If a program is from an institution that doesn’t have a campus presence, students should conduct research into the business address and makeup of the institution to make sure it is valid

Most of the negatives and pitfalls included above can easily be identified with a bit of research. Conversely, the positive attributes, such as being accredited and offering robust student support, are all verifiable through research, referrals and third-party industry stakeholders. Online learning isn’t a minefield where students need to always look out for scams. It is increasingly an extension of traditional academic institutions.

Is an online MSW valid? Yes.

Top online MSW programs are accredited, authoritative and flexible. They give learners the opportunity to experience the curriculum in more flexible, convenient ways without sacrificing academic rigor or industry acceptance. The Rutgers University MSW has emerged as one of the industry leaders in the space. We offer a fully online program. If you’re interested in pursuing an MSW and want to learn more about our offerings, contact us today or spend some time checking out our program page.

Recommended Readings:
The Big Picture: Understanding the Full Social Work Scope
Social Work in 2020: What Current Students Should Know about the Field
Career paths: Which Type of Social Work is Right for You?


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