In the fall of 2010, the USC School of Social Work opened the “doors” of its new Virtual Academic Center and began offering a web-based master’s degree in social work (MSW) for the first time. And on May 11, 2012, the program invited its first graduating class—130 students from 26 states—to join 478 on-campus graduates in cap and gown for graduation ceremonies.
“The MSW@USC program has revolutionized the field of social work education,” claims Paul Maiden, vice dean and professor at the USC School of Social Work. “Our virtual platform is unlike any other currently offered by a social work school in the U.S., allowing us to provide students a unique, yet highly personalized, classroom experience and field placement, no matter their location in the U.S.”
Though the idea of online education is certainly not new, USC asserts that its Virtual Academic Center (VAC) is an advance over previous online courses. The VAC is a web-based platform that features live classes between faculty and student, complete with online presentations, videos, and interactive study groups and chat sessions. Courses are not simply broadcast versions of on-campus lectures, but interactive, small-group classes that encourage discussion and exchange.
One student’s experience
As with on-campus courses, the VAC puts a premium on being on-time to class, explains Daniel Wright, a current MSW@USC student from Hudson, Ohio, who works as a part-time Patient Services Assistant and student intern at the Cleveland VA Medical Center. Wright got acquainted with the program through a leader in the VA social work department, who noted that the MSW@USC had by 2011 arranged the regional field-work opportunities required to offer its nationally recognized, Council on Social Work Education-accredited MSW@USC virtual degree program to Ohio students.
Wright, who completed two online courses last semester and is completing two more this semester, says that the online classes are “pretty much the same as an on-campus experience. If class starts at 1:15, you’re expected to be there,” he explains. “You log into the USC Virtual Academic Center, click on your course, and the computer joins you into the class session.” Course audio, discussion, and questions are handled on a dedicated telephone line.
“You can see your professor and your classmates virtually on the computer screen, follow the discussion or presentation, and pick up any attachments,” Wright says, noting that professors often “share” their own screen display while they are presenting materials, but can also delegate the display to students so that they can make presentations or lead discussions. He adds that the web interface allows professors to divide classes into discussion or meeting groups, who may work separately for a time but then rejoin in a general class discussion.
Wright reports that virtual USC students may take courses toward an MSW degree on a two-year (full-time), three-year, or four-year completion schedule. Relative to the on-campus MSW experience, Wright says that the virtual program appears to place a higher reliance on papers, rather than conventional examinations, as measures of student performance. And, while he maintains that the quality of the program is high, he says that the program's tuition is substantial as well.
The future of social work education?
Like other MSW programs, the MSW@USC program requires students to arrange and complete a variety of field work requirements. Because such assignments take place in the student’s home state or region, Wright says “[the program] will actually fly a faculty member to your area—in my case Cleveland—and they’ll talk with you about where and how you’re completing your field work requirements.” Students also have regular online or phone access to a program mentor on the USC campus.
USC reports that enrollment numbers for the online MSW program have been strong from the start, as the need for social workers in many areas continues to rise. The school cites Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts of 25 percent employment growth for the social work profession, led by increased demand for social workers in areas such as health care (34 percent expected growth); mental health and substance abuse (31 percent); and child, family and school settings (20 percent).
Since 2010, the MSW@USC program has enrolled more than 1,200 graduate students. After completion of the core social work curriculum, students pursue concentrations of study depending on interest:
· Families and Children
· Mental Health
· Community Organization, Planning and Administration
The school said that its sub-concentration in Military Social Work and Veteran Services is increasing in popularity and that more than 260 of the current MSW @USC students are affiliated with the military in some way.