Teaching Clinical Social Work Skills Primarily Online: An Evaluation

Article excerpt

SOCIAL WORK EDUCATORS have not been among early adopters of Internet-mediated courses; a search of the literature finds very few peer-reviewed articles about this topic prior to 2000, and the small number of articles since that time are primarily about Web-enhanced rather than Web-mediated social work courses (e.g., Faul, Frey, & Barber, 2004). Even fewer articles describe evaluations of Internet-based instruction, and none report on the evaluation of skills-based clinical courses. Skills-based clinical courses that require interactive instruction are frequently regarded as inappropriate for online teaching (Moore, 2004), as the social work discipline's focus on human interaction and hands-on teaching of practice skills can seem incompatible with technology-mediated education. Nevertheless, social work programs are implementing some courses that are partially Internet-mediated (Knowles, 2001), while others are offering entire clinical social work courses online (Siebert & Spaulding-Givens, 2006).

Other disciplines have begun to evaluate clinical courses taught online, and the consensus is that technology-mediated courses (Russell' 1999; Young, 2000) and entirely online courses (Feldhaus & Fox, 2004; Yucha & Princen, 2000) can provide learning that is equivalent to face-to-face courses. Others find that online students can also become better learners and score higher on exams as a result of the online format (Thiele, 2003). However, research in helping disciplines (e.g., nursing) consistently finds that online students express frustration with the medium, prefer classroom interaction, and worry that their opportunities for learning are not commensurate with face-to-face classroom learning (Thiele, Allen, & Stuckey, 1999; Woo & Kimmick, 2000; Yucha & Princen, 2000). Comparisons with specific elements of previous studies are embedded individually in the text of this article because differences in the disciplines, content of coursework, measurement, research design, and sampling make more than the most general comparisons quite difficult (i.e., "comparing apples with oranges").

The purpose of this article is to describe the evaluation of the first skills-based clinical course taught in a Council on Social Work Education-accredited, entirely online master of social work program. The goal is to share information in an effort to further discussion about the benefits and risks of online education and to offer useful information for social work educators who may be interested in implementing a skills-based clinical course online. The university Institutional Review Board approved this research.

Course Description

The online course the authors developed was Crisis Intervention and Brief Treatment (CIBT), a masters-level clinical course that included both knowledge transfer and skills development. The course was implemented in a 12-week summer semester; the first six weeks covered crisis assessment and intervention, and the last six weeks covered brief treatment and evaluation. The course was available as an elective to students in their 3rd semester of the advanced standing online MSW program. The face-to-face version of the CIBT course was offered during the regular 14-week academic year, allowing 7 weeks for crisis intervention and 7 weeks for brief treatment.

Despite the 2-week time difference between the online and face-to-face courses, the content covered was identical. Students in both courses were required to read the same texts and articles, and they were exposed to identical lecture material, although the online students had to read the lectures rather than hear them. The assignments for both classes were also similar in that they were designed to measure specific knowledge growth and skills acquisition related to crisis intervention and brief treatment. Of course, to meet the needs of online students and overcome the challenges of Internet-mediated education, many traditional classroom activities and assignments were modified for the online class. …