Quality and Comparability in Distance Field Education: Lessons Learned from Comparing Three Program Sites

By Mcfall, Joann P.; Freddolino, Paul P. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Quality and Comparability in Distance Field Education: Lessons Learned from Comparing Three Program Sites


Mcfall, Joann P., Freddolino, Paul P., Journal of Social Work Education


THE NEED FOR AND ACCEPTANCE OF distance education programs in graduate social work are well represented in the literature (Black, 1997; Blakely, 1992, 1994; Cochrane, Sullivan, & Bloom, 1995; Conklin, 1994; Jackson & Nair, 1995; Jennings, Siegel, & Conklin, 1995; Petracchi & Morgenbessser, 1995; Raymond, 1988; Sheafor, 1994; Siegel, Jennings, Conklin, & Napoletano Flynn, 1998). Additionally, the academic achievement of distance education students is addressed by comparative studies indicating similar performance levels of students in various campus and distance locations (Black, 1997; Chute, Balthazar, & Poston, 1988; Cunningham, 1988; Davis, 1995; Miller, 1988; Mount & Walters, 1985). At the same time, some reports indicate student preference for live instruction (Thyer, Polk, & Gaudin, 1997). Comparability of the learning environments of students on campus and in distance sites has also been addressed (Freddolino & Sutherland, 2000), as has the importance of relationships in distance learning (Freddolino, 1996).

Due to swift advances in technology, distance education modalities in social work have progressed rapidly but, we believe, with professional responsibility and caution. At the same time, literature regarding the vital field instruction component of distance programs is just beginning to emerge (Black, 1997; Blakely, 1992; Cochrane et al., 1995). This is occurring as programs move to more distant sites and field directors experience the challenges that have been predicted: exhausting logistical arrangements; long distance problem resolution; and managing potential impacts within agencies and across human service networks (Freddolino, McFall, & Herrick, 1994).

Field instruction at distance education sites must meet the Council on Social Work Education's (CSWE) accreditation standards (CSWE, 1994), and general guidelines for distance education programming (CSWE, 1995). Specifically for field instruction, these standards assure equal quality of field education for all program components with outlined goals and objectives (Evaluative Standard [EVS] 6.1); assessment of field education needs (EVS 5.5) and monitoring of field performance (EVS 5.8) for all students; creating clearly defined criteria for selection of agencies and field instructors (EVS 6.4); maintaining field instruction policies (EVS 5.3); and developing reciprocal and ongoing relationships with the local practice communities (EVS 6.6) (CSWE, 1994). The focus is thus on quality and comparability.

In addition to the rigorous demands of CSWE accreditation requirements, field instruction planning occurs in an atmosphere characterized by ongoing and chaotic change in the context of practice (Jarman-Rohde, McFall, Kolar, & Strom, 1997). This makes the goal of maintaining the integrity of the distance field program along with quality and comparability a true challenge.

With these design, implementation, and evaluation issues in mind, this article summarizes the experience of one distance education program model based on interviews with students. Comparisons among responses from the three sites are presented to explore the issues of quality and comparability. Finally, the recommendations are presented to assist others in dealing with these very important field instruction issues in the distance education context.

Program Description

In response to considerable demand from potential students in northern rural areas of the state, the faculty of the School of Social Work at Michigan State University approved a new Distance Education Initiative (DEI) in 1993. For its initial undertaking, DEI staff organized two part-time graduate degree cohorts in 1995-96 that used electronically mediated instruction to compare with a home-campus (East Lansing) cohort. One program was based in Marquette, a small city in a rural area 400 miles from the main campus, and the other was centered in Gaylord, located in a rural area approximately 200 miles from campus. …

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