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Online Social Work Degrees Open Education Access to More Students

Technology advancements allow universities to teach online while matching students up with internships near where they live.

Social worker jobs in the U.S. are expected to grow 12 percent through 2024, but rural areas in much of the western United States don't have enough educated and trained social workers to take care of current mental health needs.

One such example is in rural Idaho — where colleges with online graduate degree programs are helping fill that need, said Randy H. Magen, director and professor in the School of Social Work at Boise State University. With online degree programs, universities open up access to education for locals wherever they live and connect them with internships in their community. 

"We know the best way to serve places is to train the local people, the people who have roots there, the people who have family there because they're going to stay there," Magen said.

That's why Boise State helps students find an internship in their geographic area. They work together the first semester to identify potential internship sites, and then students start their internships in subsequent semesters. 

At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, five field faculty members help manage field placements and either negotiate with the students' current employers or find them a new place to intern. At the beginning of a semester, the student, a field supervisor and a field instructor sign a contract that spells out the competencies the student needs to master at the internship and the social work tasks that are appropriate for them. This way, everyone has clear expectations of what the student should be able to know and do, and the employer agrees to provide them opportunities to meet those expectations. 

"The goal is that at the end of their time in the school, they will not only have been explicitly trained in these competencies, but that they will have a portfolio showing their achievements in the program," said Grover C. Gilmore, dean for applied social sciences at Case Western.

Along with internships in their region, students at Boise State access most of their classes at whatever time they want over a seven-week period, which is especially helpful for those who have work and family responsibilities. They also have occasional live video sessions that they can participate in, such as breakout sessions that help them practice social work skills or share internship experiences.

Case Western opened up live video office hours at a variety of times so students can ask their professors questions as if they were on campus. In case students miss these sessions, they can watch the recording later to see if the professor answered their questions. Even on-campus students watch the virtual office hours.

These flexible hours and courses increase access for students who otherwise may not be able to earn an advanced degree in social work. Because the classes are online, faculty members actually get to know their students better, understand how students process what they're learning and support them right when they need it, said Sharon Milligan, associate dean for academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University.

"You really have an opportunity to have them apply what they are understanding and to be able to give them the kind of feedback they deserve," Milligan said.