Earning an advanced degree can be difficult when the nearest university is hundreds of miles away. In an effort to make higher education more accessible to Texas's rural child welfare caseworkers, Texas State University-San Marcos School of Social Work developed one of the first entirely web-assisted M.S.W. programs in the country. The program allows child welfare caseworkers to pursue an advanced degree without leaving their jobs or families and to complete the degree in 4 years, on a part-time basis.
Using the same curriculum and the same instructors that are used on campus, the program employs web-based teaching platforms, such as TRACS, that allow the use of video-teleconferencing, electronic chat rooms, and other distance learning resources to facilitate an interactive and productive online educational environment. The university's Department of Instructional Technology provides technical support to ensure the programs run smoothly and that both instructors and students are comfortable with the technology through ongoing training and assistance.
The first cohort of students to enroll in the online M.S.W. program included 22 full-time child protective services caseworkers, all of whom had B.A. degrees in fields other than social work. Grant funds paid for the tuition of 15 of the students. The web-assisted students participated in a focus group to identify strengths and weaknesses of the program and the impact of the program on their lives. Based on recent evaluations, students and school faculty alike reported a number of benefits from the online program, including the flexibility that the technology gave them.
The Texas State University School of Social Work has learned a number of lessons about developing and implementing an online M.S.W. degree program:
- Child welfare agency support should be sought and maintained so that students feel supported by their agency and the university.
- Web-based students should have the same access to resources as students on campus.
- Students seeking an online degree must be self-motivated and need to consider the strain that maintaining their full-time job and performing schoolwork may place on their personal life.
- Team projects, "cyber lounges," and instructors' virtual office hours can help to combat the isolation students may feel.
By offering the online degree program, the school hopes to continue building strong relationships with public child welfare agencies and rural communities. The school also seeks to incorporate new technology that can facilitate effective distance learning; for instance, staff are currently considering creating CDs or podcasts to provide learning opportunities to caseworkers driving long distances between home visits.
Adapted from Children's Bureau Express, September 2008, "Online Degree Program Helps Rural Social Workers" ( http://cbexpress.acf.hhs.gov/index.cfm?event=website.viewArticles&issueid=98&articleID=2273&keywords=Online%20degree%20program).