CSWE Accredited Online Master of Social Work (MSW) Programs
For individuals interested in careers in social work and human services, online Master of Social Work (MSW) programs offer the opportunity to earn their master’s in social work without having to commute to a college campus on a weekly basis or relocate for students who do not live in community distance to a campus-based program. In addition, online MSW programs enhance accessibility to program specializations that might not otherwise be available to students living in certain regions of the United States.
There are currently close to 300 CSWE-accredited MSW programs available in the United States, offering specializations in areas such as Clinical Social Work, Advanced Generalist Social Work, Child and Family Social Work, Community Practice and Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Social Change, Adult Mental Health, and many more. However, these programs are rather unevenly distributed throughout the country, and are generally concentrated in more metropolitan areas, with a few exceptions. For example, while California has 25 CSWE-accredited MSW programs, Montana and Nebraska only have one each (there are nine states that only have one school that offers an MSW program). Online MSW programs give students who live in more rural areas or regions with limited access to campus-based MSW programs the opportunity to enroll in programs that match their desired career goals without having to relocate.
This page provides an overview of the structure of online MSW programs, the instruction methods employed in these programs, common specializations, and the difference between full-time and part-time courses of study. It also covers important information on admissions requirements and state authorizations for online MSW programs.
Accessibility of Online MSW Programs
The following map illustrates the location of all CSWE-accredited, campus-based MSW programs in the United States, along with a 20-mile radius around each school’s main campus. Before schools started offering online master’s in social work programs, students who lived outside the areas represented by the blue circles had to either commute long-distances to campus or relocate in order to attend a graduate social work program. Now, online MSW programs provide students with a third option to earn their degree, which includes completing their didactic courses online and their field education requirements in person at a local practicum site.
Instruction Methods for Online MSW Programs
MasterofSocialWork.com defines an online program as one that requires two or fewer visits to campus annually. Typically, online MSW programs use advanced learning management systems (LMS), which are software applications that allow students to take classes, complete assignments, consult instructors, and discuss course concepts with classmates within one cohesive academic platform. These systems typically support both synchronous and asynchronous instruction, which are the two main types of instruction methods used in online programs.
- Asynchronous instruction is defined as any instructional content or academic assignment that students can view or complete on their own time. Examples of asynchronous instruction include pre-recorded lectures, course readings, self-paced interactive learning modules, and discussions forums that students can contribute to on a weekly basis as their schedule permits.
- Synchronous instruction is defined as any course content or assignment that students must attend or complete in real-time. Examples of synchronous instruction include live video lectures, live online “breakout room” discussions, examinations that all online students must log in to complete simultaneously, and class presentations that students host live for their instructors and peers.
For more information on online instruction methods, including pros and cons of both synchronous and asynchronous instruction, please refer to our FAQ on Instruction Methods for Online MSW programs.
Technology Requirements for Online MSW Programs
Online MSW programs typically require that students have a working computer that has video and audio capabilities, as well as a strong and consistent internet connection. With the advent of advanced learning management systems, most online MSW programs support mobile capabilities, meaning that students can complete course modules, attend online lectures, complete assignments, and even contribute to chat discussions using a tablet or mobile smartphone.
When students enroll in an online MSW program, they typically create a student account within their program’s LMS that then allows them to access all program content, including lectures, assignments, and means of contacting instructors and classmates through one portal. LMSs are typically based in the cloud, which means that students do not have to install any specialized software in order to access their online MSW program’s course content and assignments. Common learning management systems used by online MSW programs include, but are not limited to, Zoom, Canvas, Blackboard, and Adobe Connect. Below is a brief description of these learning management systems.
- Zoom features high definition video for lectures, video breakout rooms for real-time discussions, and multi-device compatibility so that students can join class sessions from their computer, tablet or phone. It also supports synchronous and asynchronous assignment collaborations, such as digital white-boarding and real-time co-annotating. Zoom also enables lecture recording and transcription for students’ asynchronous review.
- Canvas is an open-API learning management system, which allows educators to integrate learning tools and features of their own into the platform, thereby customizing it for their specific students’ needs. Canvas has also partnered with numerous education partners that have allowed them access to interactive learning technologies and tools that instructors can use for their courses.
- Blackboard is an open-API learning management system that features real-time, high-definition video lectures, compatibility across multiple devices, and collaborative learning features. This educational platform enables synchronous and asynchronous student chat and virtual discussion rooms, interactive learning modules, and a media library where instructors can post videos and other content for students.
- Adobe Connect is a web conferencing and online education platform that incorporates video and audio features, screen-sharing, discussion forums, and document sharing to allow for collaborative learning experiences both in synchronous and asynchronous formats. This platform also enables quizzes, simulations, and breakout rooms to be incorporated into students’ learning experience.
In addition, many online MSW programs also offer remote faculty and staff support in the forms of online office hours, online tutoring/career counseling, and field education support. Students who are interested in online MSW programs should keep in mind that all CSWE-accredited MSW programs, regardless of course delivery format (campus, hybrid, or online) require students to complete their field education in-person at an approved regional site. (For more information on field education, see below.)
Campus Visit Requirements for Online MSW Programs
Some online MSW programs require students to attend one or more campus intensives each year, during which they complete in-person learning activities and/or assessments, meet their instructors and classmates, and/or receive training for their field education experience. Campus visits are used to enhance the online learning experience and can be a valuable addition to an online program. Some students benefit greatly from these intensives, especially students who value in-person interactions with instructors and fellow classmates.
However, in general, students are expected to cover the costs of traveling to attend these campus intensives, and therefore prospective students should take these costs into account when deciding which online MSW program to attend. In addition, they do require travel and time away from personal and professional obligations (most campus intensive sessions last two to five days), which may not be ideal for some students. Therefore, students should weigh the benefits of these sessions with the added costs and time commitments before choosing a program that requires campus visits.
Curriculum Structure for Online MSW Programs
Online MSW programs are held to the same rigorous standards as their campus-based counterparts. Schools of social work generally have their online MSW programs parallel their campus-based MSW programs in terms of course content, curriculum structure, and specializations (though some programs may not offer all of their specializations in both delivery formats). In general, MSW programs are between 60 and 70 course credits, which students complete over two years of full-time study or three or more years of part-time study (depending on how many classes students take per term).
A traditional, full-time MSW program is comprised of foundational coursework (including a foundational field practicum) during the first year, and a specialized year during which students take concentration coursework and electives to build the specific skill sets they wish to apply to their job post-graduation. Below is a breakdown of how the course credits in an online MSW program may be divided:
- 21-24 course credits of foundational curriculum: During their foundational year students of online MSW programs typically cover topics such as human behavior in the social environment, human psychology, social welfare institutions, social work research, and foundational social work methods. They also complete a field practicum that gives them the opportunity to apply the concepts they learn in their classes to real work with clients in a professional setting. In addition, some programs may include classes in their core curriculum on issues that are central to social work practice, such as diversity and social justice, and cultural competence when working with different population groups.
- 18-21 course credits of specialization coursework: During students’ specialization coursework (sometimes referred to as their concentration coursework), they take more advanced classes that connect to their desired area of practice or research. For example, a student who specializes in Child and Family Social Work will generally take classes that train him or her to work with children, adolescents, and their families. On the other hand, a student who specializes in macro-level community development may take courses in program design and evaluation, family services, and/or social justice policy.
- 9-12 course credits of electives: Electives give students an opportunity to take classes in an interest that is outside of their chosen specialization but which is still relevant to their academic interests and career goals. For example, a social work student who specializes in Adult Mental Health and Wellness may want to take an elective in military social work, or medical social work in order to enhance his or her work with adult clients in these contexts.
- 12-16 course credits for field education: The course credits for field education are divided between two field practicums that students complete during their foundational and specialized years. Students’ first field practicum teaches them fundamental skills in social work practice and research, while their second year’s practicum is completed in a setting that is relevant to their desired area of work upon graduating.
Online MSW Program Specializations
During their first year, students also determine their specialization and discuss their choice with their academic advisor(s). Their selected specialization will dictate the classes they take in their second year and the site of their second year’s field practicum. Below are examples of online MSW program specializations that students may encounter:
- Clinical Social Work Practice: In this specialization, students learn the key principles and methods of clinical work with individual clients and small groups, including assessments and diagnoses, establishment of the client/therapist relationship, and modalities such as dialectical behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy, and narrative therapy.
- Adult Mental Health and Well-Being: In this specialization, students focus specifically on the clinical treatment of adults and the support of their well-being from early adulthood into old age. Classes that students may take in this concentration include evidence-based practice, clinical interventions, religion and faith in therapy, group psychotherapy, substance abuse, grief and loss, and geriatric social work.
- Child, Adolescent, and Family Social Work: This specialization prepares students to work with children and adolescents who are experiencing mental, emotional, and/or behavioral challenges. Students of this specialization also learn how to support children’s families and design interventions for students experiencing social, financial, or health-related hardships. Courses in this specialization may include human psychology across the lifespan, social work practice for families, school social work, and youth substance abuse.
- Substance Abuse and Addictions: This specialization prepares students to use clinical social work methods to help clients cope with and resolve addictions that are negatively impacting their well-being. Courses within this specialization may focus on harm reduction techniques, cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapies, and trauma, anxiety, and depression’s connection to substance abuse.
- Community Practice and Administration: This macro-level social work specialization is for students who want to enact larger-scale social change through program development and leadership. Students learn how to design, implement, and evaluate programs that seek to address community-wide social challenges or injustices. Classes in this concentration may include program design, social work policy and advocacy, grant writing, outcomes assessments, program management and administration, and community mobilization.
- Social Change Leadership and Innovation: This macro-level social work specialization prepares students to enact change at the organizational and community levels using a combination of social work methods and entrepreneurial strategy. Students in this specialization may take classes in non-profit leadership and management, community mobilization, public affairs, corporate social responsibility, social work research, and program design and funding.
- Advanced Generalist Social Work: The advanced generalist specialization is intended for the social work student who wishes to study both micro and macro-level social work principles and methods. In general, students complete classes in both direct practice (clinical) social work and community leadership and social change. Students in this concentration often have more flexibility as to the courses they can choose once they complete their foundational coursework; classes that comprise an advanced generalist program may include social work practice with family systems, social policy advocacy and analysis, diagnosis and assessment, diversity and human rights, and clinical social work methods.
Note: The specializations above and their descriptions are meant to serve as examples only, and are not intended to exactly represent the curriculum of current online MSW programs available to students.
Full-Time Versus Part-Time Online MSW Programs
Many online MSW programs offer students both full-time and part-time curriculum options, due to the fact that many social work students may need to maintain jobs while they pursue their degree. While the number of course credits taken per term varies between programs and the type of academic calendar they use (e.g. semester system vs. quarter system vs. shorter four-, five-, or eight-week terms), in general, being enrolled full-time means taking 9-12 course credits on the quarter system, or 15-17 credits on the semester system. The number of credits required for full-time enrollment can also vary if the program has year-round enrollment with students also taking classes during the summer.
For part-time programs, students may take anywhere from 3 to 9 course credits per quarter, or 6-12 per semester. While a full-time program of study may take 24 months to complete, a part-time program may take 36 months or longer. Below are curriculum charts to illustrate the difference between full-time and part-time online MSW programs, for a concentration in Child and Family Social Work.
Please note that the curriculum samples below are meant only for informational purposes. For the most accurate information on the specific curriculum for any given online MSW program, students should refer to the school’s website or connect with the a program administrator.
Sample Curriculum Plan for a Full-Time Course of Study (with No Summer Session)
Sample Curriculum Plan for a Part-Time Course of Study (with Summer Session)
Field Education in Online MSW Programs
An important consideration for students interested in an online MSW program is the fact that all such programs require students to complete their field education in person at a qualifying social work-related setting. In general, MSW programs require students to complete between 900 and 1200 hours of field practicum (the number of hours may differ depending on the program and students’ specialization). For traditional MSW programs, students complete a foundational field practicum in their first year, and a specialized practicum in their second year.
During the terms in which they are enrolled in field education, online MSW students are expected to devote between 16 and 20 hours per week to their practicums (however, for part-time students the weekly number of hours may be lower, depending on their program of study and their advisor’s approval). Students complete the majority of their field placement hours Monday through Friday during normal business hours when their field instructor is present. It is typically not common for students to be able to complete their hours on the weekend or at night, therefore, students who are working part-time while completing their MSW should take this into consideration and also notify their employers regarding their field education commitments.
MSW programs vary in terms of how they handle the matching of students to their field practicums: while some programs match students to practicum sites and supervisors in their region of residence, others require students to locate their own practicums while providing support as needed. For in-depth information on the matching process, the structure of field education, common field practicum sites, and the key steps to success in one’s field practicum, please refer to our comprehensive Guide to Field Education.
Faculty Mentorship and Student Support in Online MSW Programs
As mentioned previously, online MSW programs utilize learning management systems to not only deliver course content, but also facilitate interactions between students and program faculty. Outside of class discussions and asynchronous or synchronous instruction, students can typically contact their professors by email with questions they have about course concepts. Depending on the program and their course instructor, students may also be able to chat with their professors via phone or video chat, and/or attend live supplemental discussion sections or office hours through their program’s LMS.
In addition to faculty mentorship, students of online MSW programs also generally have several sources of support, including academic advisors whom students can consult online, field education directors who can help students in their identification of ideal practicum sites, and tutoring and career counseling services. They typically also have access to library databases and librarian assistance, offices of financial aid, and other important campus resources.
Admissions Requirements for Online MSW Programs
Admissions requirements for online MSW programs are as rigorous as those of their campus-based counterparts. In general, online MSW programs require applicants to submit the following:
- A personal statement explaining the student’s personal and professional goals as they relate to social work, his or her experiences in the field, and how the online MSW program will help them realize their career aspirations.
- Transcripts of all undergraduate (and if applicable graduate) work. Some online MSW programs require students to have maintained an overall GPA of 3.0 or higher.
- Two to three letters of recommendation from academic or professional sources.
- A professional resume that shows a track record of interest in the social work field, human services, community well-being, social justice, or related areas.
Prospective students should note that online MSW admissions are selective and typically competitive, which means even students who meet the admission requirements are not guaranteed to be accepted into the program.
State Authorizations and Clinical Social Work Licensure
It is important for students who are considering out-of-state online MSW programs to understand that online programs must receive authorization from states to enroll online students who live in those states. As a result, while the majority of online MSW programs are authorized to accept students from any state in the United States, not all online MSW programs may accept students from all 50 states. Students who are interested in an online program should check with the admissions office of the program that interests them for the most up-to-date information regarding state authorizations.
Students interested in pursuing licensure in clinical social work post-graduation, should understand that social work licensing requirements vary by state and that state specific licensing boards determine those requirements independent of other states. Therefore, students considering an out-of-state program should review licensing requirements for their state of residence and speak with a program advisor to determine if the program’s curriculum will meet those requirements. It is possible that students may have to take specific electives or complete their education hours in specific settings to meet licensing requirements.