Four hundred deans and faculty members from Schools of Social Work gathered in Indianapolis on April 16, 2015, for the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Conference on Distance Learning.
The Conference provided the Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) an extraordinary opportunity to listen and to be heard on this important issue. CSWA’s 2013 Position Paper on Distance Learning (see clinicalsocialworkassociation.org) is based on an in-depth review of distance learning social work programs by a distinguished committee of clinicians chaired by Laura Groshong and including Frederic Reamer, the late David Phillips, Joel Kanter, and Jan Freeman. The group found significant pitfalls in MSW programs not grounded in the human connections that are the basis of social work, and urged development of education standards for online programs.
CSWE has not taken an official position on distance learning or established any limits to online MSW coursework or field activities. In contrast, the American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation has long-established standards for online clinical education.
“Should Clinical Social Work Be Taught and Practiced Online?”
The conference opened with a panel debating the topic “Should Clinical Social Work Be Taught and Practiced Online?” Nancy Smyth, Dean at the University of Buffalo, and Debra McPhee, Dean at Fordham University ) defended the affirmative position, while Elizabeth LEGISLATION & ADVOCACY Alvarado, on campus professor at Hunter University and online professor at Boston University, and our own Laura Groshong, LICSW, CSWA Director for Policy and Practice, opposed clinical education devoid of face-toface experience.
There was plenty of disagreement in the hour-long discussion that took place. In their opening statement, Drs. Smyth and McPhee critiqued the CSWA Position Paper point by point, providing opportunity for Ms. Alvarado and Laura to explain how the failure to set limits on online MSW education ignores what actually happens in the process of learning and practicing clinical social work. Their focus was the need for 240,000 licensed clinical social workers in the country to have the ability to form human connections that only in-person relationships in practicum and courses teaching clinical techniques can bring.
Whether the debate changed anyone’s mind about the issue of whether clinical social work coursework or practicum should be conducted in-person was unclear. One happy result was that the CSWA Position Paper was given a much wider audience than it had previously enjoyed in the academic community. However, the feeling of two worlds colliding was evident: the academic perspective of the “pro” side was very different from the “con” side, where both panelists were clinicians.
Following the panel, Laura and I met with CSWE Executive Director, Darla Coffey, and the CSWE Director of Accreditation, Jo Anne Regan, to discuss a future role for CSWA with CSWE in the development of clinical coursework standards.
Later, in informal networking, many of those present mentioned—in most cases privately—the pressure that they are under from administrations or deans to create online programs to capture the increased enrollment and income that go with them. At one point, we CSWA representatives, by chance, wound up sitting at the same table as University of Southern California (USC) representatives. USC may be the most extreme example of a school that promotes online education, and most assuredly, this made for an interesting table discussion. Clearly, the divide between practice and education is still one that remains to be bridged.