Comparing Three Modes of Instruction in a Graduate Social Work Program

Article excerpt

SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION faces a number of strategic issues related to the convergence of two major trends in higher education: (a) the expansion in distributed education to meet the needs of a growing population of nontraditional students and (b) the revolution in information technology. This convergence has led to a number of nontraditional forms of social work education, including the development of Internet-based, or online, offerings of courses. Nontraditional social work education has been viewed with a skeptical eye by many social work educators, including many key members of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), social work's accrediting body. CSWE's recent focus on program integrity and educational outcomes has relieved the pressure on schools that wish to offer nontraditional options, because they now can simply show that these two issues are being addressed without undue focus on proving they are doing things a certain (i.e., traditional) way.

Although there are a number of studies of certain nontraditional options for social work education, the published research comparing educational outcomes for online students and traditional ones was almost nonexistent in 2004, the time of the study reported in this article. In the study reported here, we offered three groups of master's in social work (MSW) students in one university a course in three formats; in this article, we compare the various outcomes. The formats were (a) the traditional, face-to-face, classroom approach; (b) Internet instruction; and (c) a hybrid format with one half the normal classes through the Internet and the other half delivered through the traditional format. These three groups of students were compared on course grades, content knowledge gain, student satisfaction, and course-content self-efficacy.

The Challenges and Promises of Nontraditional Social Work Education

According to an experienced accrediting specialist, there have been three phases in nontraditional social work education (Wilson, 1999). The first phase was the offering of social work education in the traditional format at locations distant from the main campus. The second phase entailed the use of interactive television (ITV), whereby the instructor would deliver instruction by television to students at a distant location. Using this format the students had the opportunity to ask questions and engage in a dialogue. The third phase in nontraditional social work education was computer-mediated instruction, whereby the instructor used the Internet to communicate with students in various ways, ranging from modest enhancements of traditional teaching to courses being offered exclusively through the Internet. It is the latter technique that is the primary focus of the present article.

There is some confusion in terminology used in the literature with regard to nontraditional education. In particular, the term distance education is used to mean different things in different publications. For the purpose of this article we refer to traditional as the face-to-face interaction between the instructor and students on the campus that grants the degree, whereas off-campus refers to face-to-face instruction that is offered somewhere other than the university campus that is granting the degree. The term Internet instruction refers to instruction that is offered through the Internet in the absence of face-to-face interaction between the instructor and student. The term ITV refers to instruction offered through interactive television, whereby the student and instructor interact through a television hookup between the location of the instructor and the location of the student. There are many combinations of these modes of instruction that might be used by one educational program. One combination we pay particular attention to in this article is the hybrid format, whereby a major portion of the course is offered in the traditional format, whereas another significant proportion of the class is offered as Internet instruction. …