First Advisor

Candyce Reynolds

Term of Graduation

Spring 2021

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership: Postsecondary Education


Educational Leadership




Distance education, Social work education, Social workers -- Training of, Graduate students -- Attitudes



Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 126 pages)


Social work education is an academic discipline that prepares students to support individual, family, and community wellbeing, and to advance policies for social equity. Despite the increasing use of online education for social work, many social work faculty believe that online Master of Social Work (MSW) programs do not adequately prepare graduates for direct practice (engagement, assessment, intervention, and evaluation) with vulnerable populations. Students from an online MSW program at a midsized urban research university were interviewed to learn (a) how well an online MSW prepared these students for direct practice with individuals, families, and communities; and (b) what instructional approaches best prepared them for direct practice social work.

This study finds that online education helps students to become effective social workers. Participants in the study said they benefited from a variety of learning tools and methodologies including live videoconference meetings, virtual office hours, taped lectures, readings, and virtual roleplays with transcribed feedback from instructors. Participants navigated obstacles in their education by extensive contact with their classmates through designed classroom spaces, spontaneous videochats and social media connections. Field placements, which occur face-to-face were essential to student learning. Their learning, however, was limited by the lack of direct practice courses and insufficient access to direct practice electives, since the program specialized in leadership and management. Without direct practice coursework some participants from rural areas had difficulties advancing into leadership positions in their organizations as they had planned. Also, participants in remote locations said they had insufficient support from the social work program to establish strong field placements. Participants spoke of disabilities that they did not report and were not accommodated while they were in the program.

The findings of this study support several recommendations for online MSW programs. Social work programs specializing in policy and leadership need to include sufficient foundational courses and electives to prepare graduates for employment in direct practice roles which may be required for social work employment, licensure, and professional advancement after graduation. Since field practicums are a central part of social work education, educational programs need to devote additional resources to establish and maintain high quality field education in a broad range of community sites. Further research is needed on the presence of students with disabilities in online MSW programs, and programs need to provide information and support to accommodate these students.


© 2021 Samuel W. Gioia

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