As advances in technology and social media make online interaction easier, a growing number of accredited schools are offering online MSW programs. A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can open the door to a challenging and rewarding career that makes a difference in the lives of people in need. MSW degrees are ideal for people who want to make a career change, as well as for those who already work in the social services field and want to take their career to the next level.
Today’s high-tech virtual learning environments provide MSW students with many of the same educational opportunities as on-campus programs, and earning a master’s degree in social work online is becoming an increasingly viable option for people who need to balance their daily lives with their dream of advancing their career in social work.
Online MSW Program Benefits
Many people who are employed full time and have family responsibilities feel overwhelmed by the thought of completing a graduate program. Online Master of Social Work programs allow students more flexibility in pursuing an advanced degree without having to relocate or quit their jobs. Students can typically select from full time or part time options and can complete their degree from the convenience of their homes, regardless of where their school is located.
While not every school of social work has an online degree program, those that do are able to educate a wide network of students regardless of location. This is especially important for students who live in rural areas that are underserved by social work schools.
On-Campus, Online and Hybrid Graduate Programs
When selecting a master’s program, students should consider their lifestyle, personality and educational goals before making a final decision. One of the decisions students have to make is if they want to attend an on-campus program, an online program or a hybrid program.
An on-campus program is the traditional setup. Students go to campus, sit in a classroom and listen to lectures while interacting with professors and other students. This is a good option for students who need face-to-face interaction to learn. Plus, because their students are in the same room, it’s easier for professors to gauge who understands a concept and review material that needs further explanation. Some students find this format engaging and, therefore, find it easier to keep up with the lectures and assignments. The classroom setting incorporates instant feedback among students and in-person networking opportunities.
On-campus programs require students to have access to the campus. These programs also require a flexible schedule since classes are only offered at specific times. On-campus programs may not be an option for students with families or full-time jobs.
Online programs benefit students who need a flexible schedule and learn better in an independent setting. Students who are motivated, focused and organized thrive in online programs.
In online programs, lectures are often recorded and chats can be archived, offering students the opportunity to watch lectures multiple times and review chat notes. The technology used in online programs enables students to review information as many times as needed in order to grasp the material. Some students in this setting may not experience the same sense of community a traditional on-campus education offers, but the flexibility in scheduling means students don’t have to rearrange their lives for their education.
Online programs also provide the opportunity for students to attend schools that might be otherwise geographically prohibitive. As online programs develop and grow, many schools are offering innovative communication options for students such as chat rooms, video conferencing and platforms designed specifically for online classes.
Online programs require students to have an Internet connection and functioning computer. Some programs will require video conferencing as a part of the class, so it’s important for students to make sure they have the right type of equipment.
Hybrid programs mix and match the benefits of online and on-campus programs, combining the flexibility online programs with the community interaction of on-campus programs. Advancements in technology are making hybrid programs more popular and accessible for a growing number of students. Hybrid programs can be challenging for professors to teach, because while they offer the benefits of both programs, they may require professors to schedule meetings and deal with technological issues. Hybrid programs offer flexibility, but do require students to make travel arrangements to campus on some occasions.
Each type of program has pros and cons that might make it work for a particular type of personality and lifestyle over another. It’s important for students to figure out what program will be the best fit for them and their career goals before committing to a certain one. There is no right or wrong answer. It’s important for students to find a program that works so they will be motivated and set up for success.
Class Structures and Instruction Methods for Online MSW Programs
When selecting an online degree program, it is important for students to consider different types of class structures and instructional methods. Students should always consider their career goals and what they think will be the most valuable educational experience when choosing a degree program. One of the first decisions students need to make when comparing programs is whether they want a program that uses the cohort model or a flexible course schedule.
The Cohort Model
The cohort model is a type of curriculum that uses a set structure. A cohort is a group of students who begin a program at the same time and are together until the very end of the program. The students in a cohort take the same courses in the same order for the duration of the degree program. There is little flexibility in the classes students take, the order in which they take them, and how many classes students complete in a semester. However, because students move through the program with a set group of classmates, they form a strong sense of community. This community provides support during enrollment and a networking system after graduation.
Students in a cohort model are comfortable with the set pace of the program. Courses are preselected for the students, and students are likely to be auto-enrolled and guaranteed a spot in classes. This means reduced stress when creating a schedule.
Flexible Course Schedule
The other program structure is a flexible course schedule. These types of programs allow students to select classes and move at an individual pace. Students take elective classes related to their particular interests and career goals. Students with a flexible course schedule have more options in the order and subject matter of the courses they take. Students have the option to move at a faster or slower pace than other students, since they are not all moving through the program together. The other notable difference is that students will take classes with a diverse group of peers as they move through the program.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Content
Once students decide on a cohort or flexible model, they will want to look into the method of instruction. There are two types of online class content — synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous classes require the students to be online at a set time. This is similar to a traditional class in that there is a certain time during the week that students set aside to be online and participate. The benefit to this is that it offers instant feedback from the professor and other students. These classes might take the form of a chat session, conference call or video session, but students communicate in real time.
The other type of online class is asynchronous, which means that there is no set time for the entire class to meet. Generally there are weekly deadlines for students, and the professor can post video lectures, podcasts or notes for students to review. Students can expect to have all the regular aspects of a class like tests and papers, but with limited real-time feedback. The benefit to this is flexibility. Students don’t have to set aside the same time every week to meet with the class as long as they are completing assignments on time. In this setting, students still communicate with classmates and professors via email.
Some online programs combine synchronous and asynchronous content to create a hybrid learning experience. It’s important to note that there is no right type of program. The key is for students to do their research and select the program that fits them best.
Online MSW Fieldwork
Since face-to-face fieldwork is a critical component of the MSW degree, most online programs provide some level of field education support. The best programs provide local placement coordination in the areas where students live; some programs even send faculty and administrators to personally visit field sites and meet with students' advisors.
Online MSW Technology
One of the common misconceptions about online education has been a perceived lack of social opportunities, but many students are finding the opposite to be true. Online MSW programs that utilize Web 2.0 technology create a fully immersive experience for students. Web 2.0 technology incorporates live video chats that allow for face-to-face interaction between professors and classmates. The program also offers an array of applications that help professors manage content and facilitate communication with students.
Web-based learning platforms use familiar interactive tools that are available on social media networks, allowing students to participate in live real-time discussions, view streaming video of classroom lectures and collaborate with their peers. Some online MSW programs offer both synchronous and asynchronous content, which means that students are required to be online at certain times for live interaction but can access stored content anytime their schedules allow.
Online Master of Social Work Program Requirements
Online Master of Social Work (MSW) programs are a great option for students who work full time, are busy with family or unable to attend an on-campus program. Many online programs offer a high level of flexibility while maintaining the academic standards of a traditional program. Specific application requirements vary by program, but there are common eligibility and admissions factors students should consider when selecting an online program.
Admissions and Eligibility
After creating a list of programs to which they plan to apply, students should first check possible geographical restrictions. Some programs might require students to live within a certain distance of campus so they are able to attend occasional on-campus activities. Other programs might require students to live a certain distance away from a campus to avoid competing with their own programs. Programs might not accept students from every state, so students should make sure that their locations and schools are a match. Students can find most of this information online, but they should speak with an admissions counselor to confirm geographical requirements.
Students also generally need to have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and have taken certain prerequisites. Most MSW programs have a minimum GPA requirement and will require a transcript from undergraduate institutions. Many programs also require a personal statement in order to assess how students will fit the program. Some programs require that students have some experience in the area of social work in the form of a job or volunteer experience.
Another common requirement is for applicants to take the GRE. Depending on the program, the GRE may be required of all, none or some of the applicants.
Students will do the majority of their work online, and they will need access to a computer with Internet and, depending on the program type, a webcam or other equipment.
All programs will require some combination of the above, but because each program is unique, students should check with each program before applying.
The online MSW program SocialWork@Simmons, our partner, outlines specific admissions and eligibility requirements on its website. The program requires that prospective students have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school and have graduated with a minimum GPA of 3.0 with a demonstrated strength in academic studies and a passion for the field. The GRE is not required for admission. The program also looks for individuals who possess certain personality attributes like sensitivity and self-awareness, which are all necessary in a career in social work.
Students who meet these standards are eligible to apply to the program. The SocialWork@Simmons application includes the completed online application, an applicable fee, a resume, transcripts, letters of recommendation and a statement of intent. For some students, the admissions counselors will request an interview — done in person or via Skype — to further explore if a student is a good fit for the program and if the program is a good fit for the student.
Online MSW Curriculum
Most online MSW programs follow a curriculum similar to traditional Master of Social Work programs. While some programs can be completed in as little as a year, they generally take two years to complete. The first year is typically spent on core courses that lay the foundation of a social work education, and during the second year, students begin to take classes in a concentration that will prepare them to pursue their career interests.
All accredited MSW programs must have a field education component. Field education is integral to ensuring that students gain practical social work experience through completing an internship with an agency that works in their area of interest. Students are required to complete a certain number of hours of field education with social service organizations, schools, hospitals or government agencies. Some schools that offer a web-based program will help online students find a field placement opportunity in their own communities.
Online MSW Accreditation
Students who are interested in enrolling in an online MSW program should be sure to choose a program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This national association sets and maintains standards for social work degree programs. In almost every state, becoming a licensed social worker requires a degree from a CSWE-accredited school.