As advances in technology and social media make online interaction easier, a growing number of accredited schools are offering online MSW programs. A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can open the door to a challenging and rewarding career that makes a difference in the lives of people in need. MSW degrees are ideal for people who want to make a career change, as well as for those who already work in the social services field and want to take their career to the next level.
Today’s high-tech virtual learning environments provide MSW students with many of the same educational opportunities as on-campus programs, and earning a master’s degree in social work online is becoming an increasingly viable option for people who need to balance their daily lives with their dream of advancing their career in social work.
Here, you can use our guide to learn all about online MSW programs, from what they offer, what they look like compared to traditional programs, who is a good candidate, and how to decode what rankings really mean.
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Sponsored Master's in Social Work Programs
Online MSW Program Benefits
Many people who are employed full time and have family responsibilities feel overwhelmed by the thought of completing a graduate program. Online Master of Social Work programs allow students more flexibility in pursuing an advanced degree without having to relocate or quit their jobs. Students can typically select from full time or part time options and can complete their degree from the convenience of their homes, regardless of where their school is located.
While not every school of social work has an online degree program, those that do are able to educate a wide network of students regardless of location. This is especially important for students who live in rural areas that are underserved by social work schools.
Online vs. On-Campus and Hybrid Social Work Graduate Programs
When selecting a master’s program, students should consider their lifestyle, personality and educational goals before making a final decision. One of the decisions students have to make is if they want to attend an on-campus program, an online program or a hybrid program. Here, we take a look at the differences between the three program delivery types.
An on-campus program is the traditional setup. Students go to campus, sit in a classroom and listen to lectures while interacting with professors and other students. This is a good option for students who need face-to-face interaction to learn. Plus, because their students are in the same room, it’s easier for professors to gauge who understands a concept and review material that needs further explanation. Some students find this format engaging and, therefore, find it easier to keep up with the lectures and assignments. The classroom setting incorporates instant feedback among students and in-person networking opportunities.
On-campus programs require students to have access to the campus. These programs also require a flexible schedule since classes are only offered at specific times. On-campus programs may not be an option for students with families or full-time jobs.
Online programs benefit students who need a flexible schedule and learn better in an independent setting. Students who are motivated, focused and organized thrive in online programs.
In online programs, lectures are often recorded and chats can be archived, offering students the opportunity to watch lectures multiple times and review chat notes. The technology used in online programs enables students to review information as many times as needed in order to grasp the material. Some students in this setting may not experience the same sense of community a traditional on-campus education offers, but the flexibility in scheduling means students don’t have to rearrange their lives for their education.
Online programs also provide the opportunity for students to attend schools that might be otherwise geographically prohibitive. As online programs develop and grow, many schools are offering innovative communication options for students such as chat rooms, video conferencing and platforms designed specifically for online classes.
Online programs require students to have an Internet connection and functioning computer. Some programs will require video conferencing as a part of the class, so it’s important for students to make sure they have the right type of equipment.
Hybrid programs mix and match the benefits of online and on-campus programs, combining the flexibility online programs with the community interaction of on-campus programs. Advancements in technology are making hybrid programs more popular and accessible for a growing number of students. Hybrid programs can be challenging for professors to teach, because while they offer the benefits of both programs, they may require professors to schedule meetings and deal with technological issues. Hybrid programs offer flexibility, but do require students to make travel arrangements to campus on some occasions.
Each type of program has pros and cons that might make it work for a particular type of personality and lifestyle over another. It’s important for students to figure out what program will be the best fit for them and their career goals before committing to a certain one. There is no right or wrong answer. It’s important for students to find a program that works so they will be motivated and set up for success.
Class Structures and Instruction Methods for Online MSW Programs
When selecting an online degree program, it is important for students to consider different types of class structures and instructional methods. Students should always consider their career goals and what they think will be the most valuable educational experience when choosing a degree program. One of the first decisions students need to make when comparing programs is whether they want a program that uses the cohort model or a flexible course schedule.
The Cohort Model
The cohort model is a type of curriculum that uses a set structure. A cohort is a group of students who begin a program at the same time and are together until the very end of the program. The students in a cohort take the same courses in the same order for the duration of the degree program. There is little flexibility in the classes students take, the order in which they take them, and how many classes students complete in a semester. However, because students move through the program with a set group of classmates, they form a strong sense of community. This community provides support during enrollment and a networking system after graduation.
Students in a cohort model are comfortable with the set pace of the program. Courses are preselected for the students, and students are likely to be auto-enrolled and guaranteed a spot in classes. This means reduced stress when creating a schedule.
Flexible Course Schedule
The other program structure is a flexible course schedule. These types of programs allow students to select classes and move at an individual pace. Students take elective classes related to their particular interests and career goals. Students with a flexible course schedule have more options in the order and subject matter of the courses they take. Students have the option to move at a faster or slower pace than other students, since they are not all moving through the program together. The other notable difference is that students will take classes with a diverse group of peers as they move through the program.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Content
Once students decide on a cohort or flexible model, they will want to look into the method of instruction. There are two types of online class content — synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous classes require the students to be online at a set time. This is similar to a traditional class in that there is a certain time during the week that students set aside to be online and participate. The benefit to this is that it offers instant feedback from the professor and other students. These classes might take the form of a chat session, conference call or video session, but students communicate in real time.
The other type of online class is asynchronous, which means that there is no set time for the entire class to meet. Generally there are weekly deadlines for students, and the professor can post video lectures, podcasts or notes for students to review. Students can expect to have all the regular aspects of a class like tests and papers, but with limited real-time feedback. The benefit to this is flexibility. Students don’t have to set aside the same time every week to meet with the class as long as they are completing assignments on time. In this setting, students still communicate with classmates and professors via email.
Some online programs combine synchronous and asynchronous content to create a hybrid learning experience. It’s important to note that there is no right type of program. The key is for students to do their research and select the program that fits them best.
Field Placement in an Online MSW Program
Gaining real life practical experience is an integral part of preparing for a career as a social worker. Students will need to complete a set amount of fieldwork prior to graduating with a Master of Social Work credential.
Though some schools require students to find their own opportunities, many universities handle setting up arrangements for student placement. They’ll typically try to match students with an agency or facility near their place of residence. Students should still be prepared to interview and go through the job acquisition process even when matched by their school.
What are Online MSW Classes Like?
One of the common misconceptions about online education has been a perceived lack of social opportunities, but many students are finding the opposite to be true. Online MSW programs that utilize Web 2.0 technology create a fully immersive experience for students. Web 2.0 technology incorporates live video chats that allow for face-to-face interaction between professors and classmates. The program also offers an array of applications that help professors manage content and facilitate communication with students.
Web-based learning platforms use familiar interactive tools that are available on social media networks, allowing students to participate in live real-time discussions, view streaming video of classroom lectures and collaborate with their peers. Some online MSW programs offer both synchronous and asynchronous content, which means that students are required to be online at certain times for live interaction but can access stored content anytime their schedules allow.
Online Master of Social Work Program Requirements
Online Master of Social Work (MSW) programs are a great option for students who work full time, are busy with family or unable to attend an on-campus program. Many online programs offer a high level of flexibility while maintaining the academic standards of a traditional program. Specific application requirements vary by program, but there are common eligibility and admissions factors students should consider when selecting an online program.
Admissions Requirements for Online Programs
Just like their on-campus programs, top online MSW programs can be selective and competitive when it comes to the admissions process.
Though specific details can vary from school to school, most online Master of Social Work programs require the following:
A bachelor’s degree from an accredited higher learning institution
Meeting of the school’s minimum GPA requirement
Completion of any required undergraduate classes
Submission of complete undergraduate transcript
Submission of application and letters of reference
Payment of application fee
Meeting of any technical requirements (personal computer, internet access, etc.)
Some schools (though not all) may also require students to have completed some work experience in a related human services field.
Because every school may have unique eligibility requirements, students are encouraged to find out prior to applying what, if anything, they may need to complete before they can enroll in an online MSW program. An admissions specialist should be able to point prospective students in the right direction to make sure they’re eligible to take the next steps.
Another common requirement is for applicants to take the GRE. Depending on the program, the GRE may be required of all, none or some of the applicants.
Students will do the majority of their work online, and they will need access to a computer with Internet and, depending on the program type, a webcam or other equipment.
Simmons Online MSW Program Admission Requirements
Since every school has a slightly different standard when it comes to admission requirements, going right to the source is the best bet to find the most up-to-date information. The online MSW program SocialWork@Simmons, from our partner, outlines specific admissions and eligibility requirements on its website. The program requires that prospective students have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school and have graduated with a minimum GPA of 3.0 with a demonstrated strength in academic studies and a passion for the field. The GRE is not required for admission. The program also looks for individuals who possess certain personality attributes like sensitivity and self-awareness, which are all necessary in a career in social work.
Students who meet these standards are eligible to apply to the program. The SocialWork@Simmons application includes the completed online application, an applicable fee, a resume, transcripts, letters of recommendation and a statement of intent. For some students, the admissions counselors will request an interview — done in person or via Skype — to further explore if a student is a good fit for the program and if the program is a good fit for the student.
Online MSW Curriculum
Most online MSW programs follow a curriculum similar to traditional Master of Social Work programs. While some programs can be completed in as little as a year, they generally take two years to complete. The first year is typically spent on core courses that lay the foundation of a social work education, and during the second year, students begin to take classes in a concentration that will prepare them to pursue their career interests.
All accredited MSW programs must have a field education component. Field education is integral to ensuring that students gain practical social work experience through completing an internship with an agency that works in their area of interest. Students are required to complete a certain number of hours of field education with social service organizations, schools, hospitals or government agencies. Some schools that offer a web-based program will help online students find a field placement opportunity in their own communities.
Online MSW Program Choices
Students looking to obtain an online Master of Social Work degree should consider what kind of career they wish to pursue following graduation. Knowing ahead of time what each choice entails can be helpful when figuring out the right path to take for your education.
Social work can cover a wide range of professions and concentrations, which are largely classified by the scope of what they cover. Each concentration will fall under one of three major categories: micro, mezzo, or macro social work.
Micro Social Work
An MSW earned in a micro level concentration tends to prepare individuals for a career working with clients on a personal and/or clinical level. These professionals may work one-on-one with clients or small groups, and may offer support to those dealing with social, psychological, or financial hurdles.
Training in micro social work aims to give social workers the knowledge required to be able to identify problems that individual clients may have and support them appropriately. Micro social workers may help clients with challenges relating to housing, employment, family, financial stability, mental health, medical issues, and more.
Mezzo Social Work
At the mezzo level, an online Master of Social Work may lead to a career in social services and community based work. They may organize local health or education initiatives, and are likely to be heavily involved in community affairs. Mezzo social workers do have frequent contact with community members, but don’t always provide the same clinical or personal treatment as social workers who only work at the micro level.
Oftentimes, those involved in the mezzo level of social work are micro social work employees who are providing a service within their community. Social workers often need to fill multiple roles as demand for their services remains high.
Macro Social Work
Macro level social workers use their MSW to make a larger scale impact in the field. They may look to solve issues and implement change at the root, instead of counseling clients affected at a personal level.
Macro social workers usually don’t work with clients on a clinical basis, though they may conduct research to gain public input when looking at how to formulate new programs or change existing ones. Macro social workers may design and implement social services programs, examine the cause of social issues within their communities, and advocate for policy changes at a government level.
Whatever a student’s goals following completion of their degree may be, an online MSW program can help them acquire the skills needed for a successful career in any of these categories.
Online Master of Social Work Rankings Explained
Students researching online MSW programs may wonder what to look for when considering the various ranking systems they may find on the web.
While there’s not a single official ranking used to measure the quality of each school’s MSW program, online programs are typically measured using the same valuable criteria.
Online MSW rankings are typically impacted by several factors. They’re rated on the quality of the technology used to deliver course content, as well as the overall online learning atmosphere. The content and difficulty of class work will also be considered.
Faculty training and organization should also be assessed within a program’s ranking. Instructors should be well-versed in the unique challenges that come with teaching online classes, and should be able to communicate with students in a timely manner.
Online programs may also be rated based on their ability to set up students with internships for practical experience, and their ability to prepare students for a real world career.
As long as prospective students know what to look for in a ranking system, they can be sure to find an online MSW program that meets their needs.
Online MSW CWSE Accreditation Explained
Students who are interested in enrolling in an online MSW program should be sure to choose a program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This national association sets and maintains standards for social work degree programs. In almost every state, becoming a licensed social worker requires a degree from a CSWE-accredited school.
Who is a Good Candidate for an Online Master of Social Work?
Online degrees are becoming increasingly popular because of the flexibility they offer to students with busy lives.
An online MSW program might be an ideal choice for prospective students with an existing bachelor’s degree who want to enter the field of social work but lack the time to commit to a traditional graduate program. Since geographical location isn’t a mitigating factor, online programs can be reasonably accessed by anyone with a reliable internet connection. Family and work obligations can still be met while students meet their educational goals.
In other words, anyone who meets their program’s eligibility requirements can be a good candidate for an online MSW, no matter their location and schedule.