Changing the Nature of the Discourse: Teaching Field Seminars Online

By Wolfson, Gloria K.; Magnuson, Curtis W. et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Changing the Nature of the Discourse: Teaching Field Seminars Online


Wolfson, Gloria K., Magnuson, Curtis W., Marsom, Georgina, Journal of Social Work Education


MOST BACCALAUREATE social work degree programs provide students with a field seminar related to the practicum. This usually involves students meeting regularly with their faculty liaison and other students. The purpose of the seminars is to assist students in sharing experiences and integrate classroom-based learning with field practice (Royse, Dhooper, & Rompf, 2003).

In the BSW program at the University College of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia (UCFV), there are required field seminars in each of the 3rd and 4th years. For some students, especially those who live a long distance from the institution, classroom-based seminars have represented hardship. This is particularly true for 4th-year students who are in practicum 4 days a week. The challenge was to provide a field seminar that would benefit students while overcoming barriers of a geographical nature. As we were searching for some creative ways to deal with these challenges, online learning began to emerge as a real alternative.

WebCT was selected as the platform for several reasons, chiefly because (a) it had been developed at the University of British Columbia, (b) it was user friendly, and (c) the Ministry of Advanced Education supported its use within a provincial framework.

Thus, in January 2000, a WebCT-based field seminar was introduced on a trial basis. Students were given the option of enrolling in either a traditional face-to-face class or an online seminar. Students self-selected equally between the two sections. In 2001, both online and in-class sections were offered and evaluated. As a result of the 2-year trial, the decision was made to offer both 4th-year sections online beginning in 2002.

Literature Review

Distance education has been part of the social work curriculum for the past 20 years (Callahan & Wharf, 1989). However, it has tended to take the form of print-based media, with occasional supplementation by teleconference and email (Kelley, 1993). Some experimentation occurred with interactive television, but expense limited its use (Gifford, 1998). Access to social work education remains a problem for those who are rural dwellers, particularly for Aboriginal people living on reserves. In addition, many social work students tend to be more mature, often working part-time or full-time, and have difficulty accessing classroom-based instruction (Callahan & Wharf, 1989).

Field Practice Seminars

One purpose of the field seminar is to ensure the integration of theory and practice (Kenyon & Power, 2000; Rogers, 1995). Peer support and instructor feedback on the resolution of ethical dilemmas in practice are encouraged in a seminar format (Bogo & Vayda, 1998; Garthwait, 2005). Students have an opportunity to learn about various fields of practice by sharing information about their agencies, clientele, and issues that arise in supervision (Bogo & Vayda, 1998). Students often experience high levels of anxiety when entering a field placement (Royse, Dhooper, & Rompf, 2003). Peer and instructor support have been identified as critical in managing these anxiety issues (Bogo & Vayda, 1998).

Distance Education

There is no commonly held definition of distance learning (Jennings, Siegel, & Conklin, 1995). Distance learning is sometimes defined as having student and instructor in different places at different times (Jennings et al., 1995). Other definitions are more inclusive and include face-to-face learning opportunities at a distance from the campus under the rubric of distance education. Distributed learning has come to mean the notion of using technology to supplement some or all face-to-face interaction (Hick, 1999).

As the use of interactive technology is in its relative infancy, research studies on the use of these technologies are only beginning to emerge. However, there are some preliminary findings. For example, it has been reported that satisfaction with the learning experience increases as interaction between learner and instructor and among learners increases (Brown, 2000).

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