The Pros and Cons of Online Master of Social Work (MSW) Programs - Should I Pursue an MSW Online?
MasterofSocialWork.com defines online MSW programs as programs that use primarily or exclusively online instruction, and which require no more than two visits to a campus location per year. (Note: All MSW programs, regardless of their type of instruction, require students to complete in-person field education hours, which are generally completed at a site that is close to a student’s place of residence.) Online MSW programs provide a number of distinct advantages for social work students, however, online programs are not ideal for all students, especially those who need the structure of a traditional campus-based, face-to-face program.
On-Campus versus Online MSW Programs
In terms of curriculum, course content, and field education requirements, online MSW programs are equivalent to their campus-based counterparts. All MSW programs need to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the CSWE does not distinguish between campus-based and online programs, both need to meet the same standards. CSWE-accredited MSW programs must undergo a rigorous process of accreditation and certification, and therefore, students who are considering earning their MSW online can be assured they will receive the same education and training as a campus-based program, as long as the online program is CSWE accredited. .
As part of the CSWE accreditation process, MSW programs are required to include at least 900 hours of field education in their curriculum. As the signature pedagogy of social work, field education necessitates in-person work at a site that is relevant to students’ desired specialization within social work. MSW students complete field education hours under the guidance/supervision of a field instructor, who is typically a licensed social worker. As field practicums require students to interact with clients in-person, they are typically fulfilled at a site that is close enough for students to commute to multiple times per week, regardless if a students is enrolled in an on-campus, hybrid or online MSW program.
Both campus-based and online MSW programs vary in how they approach the field education process. While some programs partner with social work organizations and agencies to connect students with potential field practicum sites and field instructors, other programs may require students to locate and apply for their field practicum site and supervisor independently, and to apply for program approval once they have identified a suitable position. Students who are considering enrolling in an online MSW program should consult with the admissions offices of their programs of interest to learn more about how these programs handle the field education placement process.
The Pros and Cons of Online MSW Programs
The sections below outline several benefits and potential drawbacks of enrolling in an online MSW program, so that prospective MSW students can make the most informed decision about their graduate education and career path. Prospective students should note that pros and cons of online MSW programs vary depending on each individual student’s circumstances, learning preferences, and needs, and therefore, an advantage for one student may be a disadvantage for another student, and vice-versa.
The Pros of Online MSW Programs
One of the main benefits of an online MSW program is the ability to attend a program from anywhere, as long as a student has a computer and access to an internet connection. In addition, online programs offer greater scheduling flexibility and time savings, as students are not required to commute to campus for in-person lectures and discussions. Online MSW programs also enable students in rural areas who do not reside near a school of social work to attend a program, without having to commute or relocate. Finally, online MSW programs give students nationwide unprecedented access to program specializations that they might not have access to if they were limited to only programs located in their region of residence.
Below is a detailed list of the pros of online MSW programs:
- Greater Flexibility and Time Savings: Online MSW programs allow students to access course content from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection and a suitable computer that enables them to engage with program faculty and peers. Through innovative learning management systems (LMSs), online MSW programs can provide both asynchronous and synchronous lectures, discussion sections, and interactive project collaborations so that students have a rich and responsive learning experience without having to commute to a campus or relocate. These technologies also save students substantial time that they would otherwise spend commuting to and from campus.
- Greater Accessibility: Currently, there are over 300 schools that offer CSWE accredited MSW programs, however, there are several states that only have a limited number of schools that offer programs. For students who do not live within commuting distance to a CSWE-accredited program, online programs provide these students access to an MSW degree without having to relocate for graduate school. Similarly, for students whose personal obligations are a barrier to receiving their graduate education, online MSW programs provide an alternative method for earning their degree.
- Greater Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI): Online MSW programs have advanced DEI in social work education by providing people who might not otherwise have easy access to graduate education with a convenient and affordable avenue to earn their MSW. For example, for individuals with disabilities who cannot easily commute to campus, online MSW programs enable them to attend classes from the comfort of their own home.
- Increased Specialization Options: As online MSW programs can enroll students who are not geographically close to them, they open up a greater number specialization options for students who may live in rural areas without regional access to graduate social work programs in their desired area of practice. For example, many students only live within commuting distance to one university unless they live in a major city. For those students, if their local university offers an MSW program but does not offer the specialization they want, online MSW programs give them the option of attending a program with a curriculum that better suits their professional goals, without having to relocate.
- Geographical Flexibility While Enrolled in the Program: Students of online MSW programs have a greater chance of being able to move to a different state while enrolled in the program should they need to relocate because of work or a family obligation. This is particularly beneficial for members of the military and their spouses, as well as for individuals who may need to move periodically for their job and/or their partner’s job. Students attending traditional campus-based programs would typically need to apply to and transfer their credits to a new program. (Note: Students who think they may have to move while enrolled in an online program should discuss this possibility before enrolling, as not all online MSW programs are approved to offer programs to students in all 50 states.)
- Greater Student Body Diversity: Online MSW programs enroll students from across the nation and even internationally, which offers students the benefit of meeting and interacting with a diverse range of people with widely different cultural and geographical experiences. In the social work profession, diversity and inclusion are paramount values, and therefore online MSW programs that enable students to discuss course concepts with individuals outside of their normal sphere of experience help to further the social work mission.
- Broader Networking Opportunities: Greater student body diversity also offers online students broader professional networking opportunities. Online MSW programs can enroll students from across the nation and the globe, who are not limited by financial or geographical circumstances. As a result, students who are looking to connect with a broader range of people in the social work field may benefit from enrolling in an online MSW program.
The Cons of Online MSW Programs
Despite their benefits, online MSW programs are not ideal for all students, particularly for individuals who desire strong pedagogical structure and one-on-one, in-person mentorship. For example, students who prefer the ability to ask questions in real-time or approach professors after class about specific questions would most likely benefit from an on-campus program. (Although, online programs that incorporate live synchronous online sessions may provide online students with similar opportunities.) In general, online MSW programs are best suited to individuals who are highly independent and can organize their time accordingly.
Below is a list of the potential cons or drawbacks of pursuing an MSW online:
- Less Structure Compared to Traditional Campus-Based Programs: Unlike on-campus MSW programs, online MSW programs give students the flexibility to complete course lectures and discussions from anywhere. However, this increased flexibility comes at the cost of routinely scheduled lectures and discussions that require students to proactively keep up with their course materials. As a result, online programs require students to be highly organized with their time so they do not fall behind in their course content. This is particularly important for online MSW programs that mainly use asynchronous instruction, which is defined as course components that students can access 24/7 and assignments that they can complete on their own time.
- Lack of Pre-Established Field Practicum Partnerships: Campus-based MSW programs often have long-standing relationships with social work agencies and organizations in their area, which enable them to connect students with potential field practicum sites and supervisors. As online MSW programs often admit students from outside of their region and even out of state, they may not have similar partnerships with social work agencies and organizations in the area (this may be especially true for programs that only recently started offering an online program). As a result, students of online MSW programs might have less program support when searching for and applying to field practicum sites near their region of residence, unless their program has an extensive alumni network that they are able to use for field instructors.
- Less Access to Campus-Based Resources: Students of campus-based MSW programs have access to resources such as in-person tutoring, library services, career counseling, and career fairs and other networking events. While online learning technologies have made it easier to access some of these resources remotely (e.g., online tutoring and career counseling, remote librarian assistance, etc.), some students may prefer accessing these resources on a physical campus.
- Fewer In-Person Contacts and Mentorship Opportunities: While online MSW programs offer students broader and more diverse networking opportunities, individuals who connect better with people in-person might prefer attending an on-campus program. In addition, being part of a campus program can offer organic mentorship opportunities and connections that are not as easy to foster in an online learning environment.
Important Considerations Regarding Field Education and Clinical Social Work Licensure
Field education, as mentioned previously, is the signature pedagogy of social work, and is therefore an incredibly important and time-intensive component of any CSWE-accredited MSW program, whether it is an online or on-campus program. Even with MSW programs that are 100% online and do not require any visits to a main or satellite campus location, students are expected to complete their field practicums in person at a regional social work agency or other human services setting. As discussed above, MSW programs vary in how much support they provide students who are looking for field practicum sites and field instructors. While some schools handle the field practicum matching process for students, others may provide students with a list of organizations they have partnered with in the past so that students can benefit from those pre-established relationships. Meanwhile, other programs facilitate connections between current students and members of their alumni network.
On-campus MSW programs, particularly those that are located near major cities or urban areas, may provide the benefit of longstanding relationships with social work organizations in their region. Prospective students of online MSW programs, particularly those who live in very rural areas with limited access to social work agencies, should note that it may be difficult for them to find field practicum sites and supervisors within commuting distance. These students should contact the admissions offices of the programs that interest them to determine what kinds of field practicum support are provided by the program.
All states require social workers who wish to set up their own independent practice to be licensed. Licensing in the field of social work is regulated at the state level by licensing boards that license social workers or social workers and other mental health professionals. As such, licensing requirements vary by state. Most MSW programs are designed to prepare students to meet the requirements for licensure in the states where they have a physical campus. In many cases a program will also provide the curriculum and training needed to meet the licensing requirements of other states as well, but students need to confirm this for their state of residence before applying to an online program offered by an out-of-state school. In cases where an out-of-state program does not meet all the requirements for licensure in their state of residence, it may be possible for students to complete any additional requirements post-graduation.